Tradition is upheld in a small hot dog stand in Newburgh. Pete’s Hot Dogs is a family-owned-and-operated business, soon to be joined by a fifth generation when the great-great-grandson of the original Pete steps behind the counter in the fall. The founder, Pete Orsino, had a plan exquisite in its simplicity, and it’s one that his descendants still follow: Keep It Simple. You’ve got a frankfurter, all-beef with natural casing. You’ve got a bun. Offer a few accoutrements and something to drink, and you’re in the game.
Legend has it that Pete tried to sell his hot dogs at the local high school with no permit or any other extraneous rigmarole, and was stopped by the City from conducting business there. Undeterred, he bought the property on South Williams and installed his kitchen where it still stands today. This was in 1932, a mere 85 years ago. Little has changed in eight decades. You’ve still got your frankfurters, buns and accoutrements – although that word is probably too fancy to refer to onions, kraut, mustard and ketchup. And the chili. God, don’t forget the chili.
Hot-dog experts with more educated palates than I have wax downright poetic when discussing the attributes and distinguishing flavors of Pete’s products, comparing the varieties of Texas-style to Michigan dogs to Coney Island dogs to Cincinnati Greek-style dogs. Pete’s grandson Vince Orsino reiterates the formula for longevity and success: “We’ve kept it simple, like the old saying goes. You can get more people in and out if you keep your menu simple. Too much on the board confuses the customers and makes delays. We can get customers in and out of here in two minutes. That’s why we don’t do French fries. It’s kept simple; not a lot of specials.”
Indeed, the menu can be scanned in seconds: your choice of hot dog with mild meat sauce (that’s the Texas), chili (hot bean sauce), mustard and kraut, mustard and raw onions, mustard and relish or the New York with sautéed red onions (oh yeah, baby!) – all for well under two bucks, and a double dog on a club roll for $3.45. Extras, to be had for a pittance, include jalapeño pepper slices, cheese and real crumbled bacon bits. Daily specials and the Wednesday and Saturday Special will get you combos with drinks and chips included.
Multiple generations of customers have patronized Pete’s over the years as well. The unassuming eatery has truly been an institution in Newburgh since before the New York State Thruway was built, and truckers driving up and down the state on Routes 9W and 32 made it a habit to stop in for a bite. Children grew up consuming hot dogs expertly steamed by Pete, then Jerry, now Vince. And they’ve brought their own kids in as well. When I visited the stand last weekend, customers poured in steadily, grabbed lunch and were on their way, seemingly unconfused and happy with their meals.
Vince, who has been behind the counter since he got out of the Marine Corps in 1964, continues to offer a product that he feels good about feeding people, and when asked if there was anything he’d like to change or reinvent, he doesn’t hesitate: “No. I’m satisfied with what we’re doing. It’s simple. We close on Sunday. We’ve never opened on Sunday; we have a ‘blue law’ here. Like in Bergen County in Jersey, there’s a ‘blue law’ – you don’t see any stores open on Sunday.”
About potential problems specific to working so closely with family, he says, “There’s always problems working with family, but you can work it out a lot better. Hey, you could fire a non-family employee. It’s hard to fire your own daughter or son. Mine – Renee and Jeff – are both educated, with college degrees. And they both choose to come into the stand for the hours and the benefits. They come in at 10 and get off at 5. Where else could you do that?”
Renee Purcell, the fourth-generation daughter with the almost-eligible son, started when she was a teenager, too. “I was in eighth grade. No, I didn’t envision taking over the business someday. I didn’t think about it at that time,” she laughs. “That was the furthest thing from my mind back then. Now my son Patrick will be starting to work in the fall when he turns 14. He asks every day when he can come to work. I feel very lucky that I have this in my life: being part of it, and my family being part of it, and being loved and recognized by so many people. People from all over the country know about us, whether they’ve moved here or heard about us from someone else; when they come to Newburgh, they come in.
“It’s really special. I came back [from New York City] in September of 2002 when my husband and I decided to have children, and I’ve been working in the stand full-time ever since. You have to work it yourself. You can’t let other people take over, because then you lose control. You have to be involved all the time to make it work. That’s what it’s been here.” She and her brother work the grills, and look forward to having yet another generation joining them.
“We have longevity in our family,” says Vince. “My mother was 101 when she passed away two years ago, and she died of boredom.” He pauses while I get the joke. I ask if his Mom ever worked at Pete’s, too. “No, never. My father Jerry, my two uncles, Tom and Anthony, and my grandfather all worked the stand. We’re just thankful we have good customers. We give a good product at a reasonable price. And people stop by every time they’re in the area. I just had two guys in from across the river in Hamptonburgh. I get people from Montgomery, Middletown, West Point and Nyack. I have people who fly in, and the first thing they do is come here, to see if we’re still here! We’re here, just like the Washington Headquarters; but the only thing is: Washington didn’t sleep here. Or eat here.” You can bet he would have, had Pete’s been around back then.
Pete’s Hot Dogs, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., closed Sunday, 293 South William Street, Newburgh; (845) 561-021, www.peteshotdogsinc.com.