Hot dog vendor competes with Big Mouth’s

Hot dog vendor Dick Christenson sells hot dogs on Green and Sixth streets in Champaign on Monday. The charismatic business owner has run hot dog stands for 40 years, and also owns a restaurant in Danville Heights. Ramzi Dreessen

Hot dog vendor Dick Christenson sells hot dogs on Green and Sixth streets in Champaign on Monday. The charismatic business owner has run hot dog stands for 40 years, and also owns a restaurant in Danville Heights. Ramzi Dreessen

By Michael Logli

Weenie Man.

That is only one of the names that students attribute to the man who sets up his hot dog stand Monday through Saturday late at night on Green Street.

But at 64, Dick Christenson said he believes the nickname is far from juvenile.

“I got more energy than most guys my age,” he said while drinking a can of Verve, his favorite energy drink. Christenson sells this and Chicago style hot dogs at Mustard’s Last Stand, all while singing Italian and Irish songs his parents taught him in his youth.

When University students pass, he calls out to them – sometimes with Italian phrases and sometimes with hot dog innuendoes. For the most part, he reminds passing students of his hours: 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

“We’re here till three in the morning for your dining pleasure,” he said.

Some students will give a confused glance at the man in the yellow shirt and red hat grinning behind his thin-rimmed glasses. But his many regulars, more than 2,000 by Christenson’s count, will cheer, salute or call out his name, telling Christenson they will come back by 3 a.m.

Christenson has been selling hot dogs on and off for more than 40 years, but has been at the University for only four of them. He was adopted and grew up in Chicago, where he opened his first hot dog stand in 1968 at Harlem Irving Plaza at the corner of Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road.

He also worked at Gene & Jude’s, a hot dog establishment just outside Chicago, and said that was where he learned to make what he claims to be a real hot dog.

“Some people just don’t know a good dog,” Christenson said. “I’ll educate them by making them one.”

Christenson has a very specific method for making his dogs with the Vienna beef meat he believes to be essential to create hot dog perfection.

First he quickly runs the hot dog under the mustard, and then covers it with a spoonful of relish. After putting on the onions, he meticulously places three tomato slices, two cucumbers and two sport peppers along the sides of the bun. He carefully places the pickle on top of his creation, and sprinkles the celery salt and pepper on it before wrapping it all up and giving it to his customer.

Christenson and his wife Susan lived in Evanston, Ill., for many years where Christenson built subdivisions as a contractor before moving to Port St. Lucie, Fla. in 1995. He lived there for nine years before his home was destroyed by hurricanes Francis and Eugene. He then moved to Muncie, Ill., to be near his mother and has been here for the past four years.

Christenson also opened a restaurant in Danville, with the same name as his stand, serving pizza and pasta along with his hot dogs.

But Christenson does not need to stand on the sidewalk every night selling dogs to students. He said he does it because he loves it, and because he wants to keep in touch with his regulars.

There are new freshmen on campus every year that Christenson said he hopes to convert from Big Mouth’s, which he says does not make a real Chicago style dog.

“They’ll be with me for the next four years,” he said.

Nick Lavorato, owner of Big Mouth’s, said he has never tried one of Christenson’s hot dogs. But as a Chicago native, he said he also knows what makes a good Chicago-style hot dog.

Lavorato said he uses the same ingredients and Vienna beef Christenson uses, with the only differences being Christenson’s inclusion of cucumbers and Lavorato’s option of having it charred instead of steamed.

“Some people put cucumber on. It’s no big deal,” Lavorato said. “I’ve never eaten there and I don’t know the guy.”

Susan Cooper, junior in LAS, went to Christenson’s stand because he promised her he would sing to her if she returned. Not only did she get her song, an Irish lullabye, but she got to make a hot dog as well.

“I love this guy,” Cooper said. “I would entirely be his best friend.”

This is only one of the two million hot dogs that Christenson claims to have made in his lifetime. He said he tried to figure it out once, but he could never find an exact number.

His goal is the perfect Chicago style hot dog, but he also loves to see the faces of students as they “ravish his wieners,” he said.

“Life is good in the hood,” Christenson said to his next customer, charging him $3 for his hot dog. “That’ll be $300.”