There’s a tenth of an acre along Route 32 North in Tillson that is almost like a city borough unto itself. This is the triangular swath of land that is home to Tommy Hayes’ food truck, or as most people just say, “Tommy Dog.”
You can find Hayes, 73, out there most days in his lawn chair reading the New York Post or a novel when he’s not busy slinging hot dogs and cheese fries for hungry customers. Or he could be chatting with friends and neighbors who pass by to grab a bite on their way to or from work. He could also be seen tending to his garden, which has grown over the past 25 years since he first decided to put up a hot-dog cart on the side of the road, not even knowing who it belonged to. “Someone had bought it from a tax sale, so I rented it for a while and then bought it,” said Hayes.
A former resident of Astoria, Queens, he found his way to the area because his mother was originally from Rosendale – and then there was that little concert in 1969, known as Woodstock that he happened to attend. “When I got back from Vietnam, I went to Woodstock,” said Hayes, who served as a combat MP during the Tet Offensive.
After the music died down, Tommy found his way back to New York City, He eventually decided to move to Rosendale, where his sister, Linda Hayes, was living along with their mother Jeanne, who owned and operated a hair salon, Smart Set, in her home at 177 Main Street.
Hayes worked for various manufacturing plants in the area, but when the Woodstock concert was making its way to Saugerties in 1994, he bought and fixed up an old hot-dog cart, He then spoke with a woman who said he could use her property near the concert area.
“I sold more hot dogs and cans of soda than you can imagine,” he said, “plus tie-dyed tee shirts.” When the concert was done, Hayes kept thinking, “What am I going to do with this hot-dog stand?”
That’s when he saw that piece of property off Route 32. “We used to take that hot-dog stand everywhere,” said his sister Linda, who works at My Market in New Paltz and loves to bust her brother’s chops. “He couldn’t do it without me,” she said with a smile, sitting at one of his three picnic benches next to the food truck and behind the garden, which is full of lilies, rose of Sharon, daffodils and irises.
They took that cart everywhere: to the Garlic Festival, the Pickle Festival, the Rosendale Street Festival, to the Strand [in Kingston] for St. Paddy’s Day and the Fourth of July celebrations. “When we were at the concert, we slept there on the grass overnight. It was crazy!”
At that point, Tommy was still working all week in manufacturing and would operate the hot-dog cart on the weekends. In 2005 he found an old bread truck on eBay in Pennsylvania advertised for $4000. He decided to purchase it, brought it back to Rosendale, and retrofitted it to serve as a state-of-the-art food truck with grills, deep fryers, refrigeration, countertops and new flooring, as well as a service window and awning. All in all, it probably cost him close to $16,000. But it’s what he loves to do – and it’s what he grew up doing.
Food trucks run in the family
“My father had a food truck in Astoria, Queens when we were growing up,” said Hayes. “He built it himself.” When the kids were really little, he said, his dad used to have one of those bicycle-driven ice-cream carts with the block of ice in it.
His dad would take him with him and drive the truck in the morning to the Queensboro Bridge, where all kinds of construction was going on, including two new traffic lanes replacing the old trolley line on the top part of the bridge.
“We’d sell egg sandwiches and coffee to all of the workers, and then we made a route where we stopped by the gas stations and parks on the way home, Tommy remembered. “We’d sell sandwiches and hot dogs.”
Linda Hayes remembers that time well: “He’d make us cut all of the onions for his onion sauce in our small tenement apartment. My eyes would be watering, and we’d go through five-pound bags of onions. But his sauce was so good. That’s the same sauce that my brother uses.”
Hayes said that he did inherit the special sauce from his dad, but has added his own twist over the years. He also offers almost every topping one can imagine for an old-fashioned New York City hot dog, along with a large array of grab-and-go food from the grill. If mustard or ketchup isn’t your flavor, he has baked beans, relish, cole slaw, sauerkraut and of course, his famous onion sauce.
As she went to the truck to help a customer who had just pulled in, his sister offered that her brother has “the best fish fillet sandwich with tartar sauce that I’ve ever tasted.” Hayes also serves French fries, cheese fries and sirloin burgers; and for the non-meat-eating folk, there are veggie burgers to boot. The top seller is, of course, the Tommy Dog, which includes mustard, baked beans and cole slaw.
What does he enjoy most about working the food truck? Hayes points behind him. “I’ve watched these kids in the neighborhood grow up,” he said. “I knew them when they were born until after they graduated. They made that sign over there,” he said, indicating a homemade sign that thanked essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
‘I have my regulars’
Directly in front of his truck is a garish, human-sized plaster hot-dog man, wrapped in an American flag, squirting ketchup on his head. “I had no idea where they came from for days,” said Hayes. “I came to open the truck one morning, and thought there was a kid wrapped in an American flag on my lawn. Come to find out, some of the employees at the [Masseo’s] nursery across the street saw this sculpture laying in the yard ready to be tossed out where they were doing some landscaping work. Instead of throwing it out, they put it here.”
These are the kinds of things that happen when one owns a hot-dog stand in the middle of Ulster County. “Everyone wants a picture next to the hot-dog statue,” said Hayes.
Now that he’s retired, he keeps his truck open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, from the first week in March to the first week in November. “A lot of my customers are townsfolk, people in the trades, construction workers, truck drivers, salesmen, police officers, people who pass by on their way to work,” he said. “I have my regulars that I enjoy seeing every day, and then on the weekends I get a lot of tourists. Last Saturday it was so busy! I could have used another pair of hands.”
In fact, Hayes said he has been busier than ever since the novel coronavirus health crisis hit, “It’s been picking up a lot,” he said. “People just kept thanking me for opening up, which I was happy to do.”
If the number of cars and vans and firetrucks that honked their horns as they passed are any indicator of his popularity, then Tommy Dog is a local star.
“No,” he demurred with his trademark smile, “If I had a buck for every beep I get, I’d be wealthy man.” Hayes is wealthy, but maybe in a different kind of way: He has his plot of land, his truck, his rescue dog, his sisters, his family. And he is a trusted friend to everyone who stops by.