NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — There’s only one thing on the menu at Tony’s Hot Dogs.
No burgers. No fries or chips. And, especially, no ketchup — the mere mention of which might get you boosted from the restaurant by owner Phillip Mirabile.
Despite the fact its location on 412 Newtown Road places it just across the border into Virginia Beach, Tony’s serves nothing but Norfolk-style hot dogs.
The Mirabile family has been serving dogs with chili, mustard and onions for 80 years in Hampton Roads, joined by a slew of old-school spots with names like Jimmy’s and Lew’s and Lulu’s.
But this year, the core ingredient — the actual hot dog itself — is being discontinued, a victim to national market pressures. Two locals, including Mirabile’s own brother, are trying to find a way to save the Norfolk hot dog tradition by coming up with replacements.
At places like Tony’s, no change is ever good. Mirabile makes his chili-sauced dogs the same way his dad, Tony Sr., used to serve them at the original spot on Lafayette Boulevard in Norfolk, which is the same way Tony Sr. learned them at Bacalis’ Hot Dog Place downtown.
Norfolk-style dogs are not as famous as the Maxwell Street dogs of Chicago, but they are just as old — and just as singular. They are the invention of George Bacalis, a son of Greek immigrants who served hot dogs and only hot dogs on Norfolk’s City Hall Avenue starting in 1934.
One way or another, most old-school hot dog spots in Hampton Roads trace their lineage to the “Hot Dog King of Downtown Norfolk.”
Tony Sr. worked at Bacalis’ starting in 1939, where Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. stopped in for dogs. Jimmy Rellos also worked there, then helped Tony Sr. run his place before opening his own shop, Jimmy’s, that presided for 45 years on Euclid Road in Virginia Beach.
And in a tangled and often tumultuous family soap opera, the ex-wife and three sons of Tony Mirabile Sr., have also each had their own hot dog shops — sometimes in direct and heated competition.
Traditionally, there are only three toppings on a Norfolk dog — though you don’t have to get all of them. An all-the-way dog is Lynnhaven mustard, fresh-cut onions and a finely ground meat sauce. Each shop has its own chili, each with its own secret ingredients and spicy kick.
The bun is a steamed Mary Jane. And the grill-charred hot dog is always the same: A natural-casing dog from Hormel, a unicorn of a hot dog that until recently was distributed nowhere in the world except Southeastern Virginia.
Hormel’s “Norfolk dog,” as Bacalis liked to call it, is unique. It’s skinny enough to leave room for chili and onion in the bun. It is salty. And its natural casing has a signature snap.
But Hormel stopped production on the Norfolk dog in January. And supplies are dwindling.
“Our Hormel rep came to us and told us that Hormel was no longer going to be making the natural casing hot dogs,” said Todd Goldman, owner of Southern Packing Corp in Chesapeake, which supplies the Hormels to just about every old-time shop in Hampton Roads. “Reason being, those hot dogs are only sold in the Hampton Roads area. The sales didn’t justify it.”
Goldman tried to keep it quiet at first, and so did the hot dog shops. “I didn’t want to cause chaos,” Goldman said.
But through an underground network of hot dog fans, word has traveled.
“I keep telling people not to panic,” said Evaleene Smith at Kevin’s Dog House in Virginia Beach, a lunch-only stop that sells almost as many Norfolk dogs as Tony’s. “I get asked daily numerous times. What’s happening with the Hormel dog? What’s happening with the Hormel dog?”
Some of her younger customers, she says, didn’t even know the Norfolk dog was a thing — she also sells Polish and all-beef dogs. But her older regulars, she says, are afraid their childhood just got discontinued.
“The majority of our customers already know that this is gonna happen,” says Michelle East at Lew’s in Norfolk, a 45-year-old hot dog shop on Azalea Garden Road in Norfolk adorned with cheery religious slogans and a shrine to policemen built by East’s father, Lew Bateman, who passed away in 2015.
“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell you how the word just got out. I tried to keep it low-key. It didn’t help.”
At Tony’s, Phillip Mirabile just plain doesn’t want to talk about it. When Goldman got word last fall that the hot dog would disappear, he asked the Hormel rep to break the news to Mirabile personally.
“My first thought was, ’What are we gonna do? Then it was, ‘I hope your next stop is going to Tony’s to tell Phillip.’”
But Goldman has been busy hatching a back-up plan. The first thing he did was stash away every natural-casing hot dog he could get from Hormel. As of mid-April, that was around 20,000 dogs.
He hopes the supply will last him through Memorial Day.
Goldman’s next step was to find a replacement.
“We talked to a couple other companies, some big name brands. We got samples, took them to our customers, and let them try ’em. None seemed to work.”
So instead, he set about trying to back-engineer a new Norfolk dog, sending samples of the Hormel dogs off to a sausage maker. Goldman says he needed the right size and shape and taste, the right natural casing with the right snap.
“It’s a funny-sized dog,” Goldman said. “Most hot dogs are 8 to the pound, or 10 to the pound. The Hormel is 11 hot dogs to the pound. It’s not your everyday hot dog.”
Early samples weren’t to his customers’ liking.
“When he started, the skin was too tough,” said East at Lew’s Hot Dogs. “And then it wasn’t tough enough.”
“We didn’t like the early samples,” agreed Smith at Kevin’s Dog House. “They were too fat and they were missing a little salt. The Hormel is a little saltier, and skinnier. The dog-to-bun ratio is huge. If you get too fat a dog, you don’t get the right dog.”
In the meantime, Goldman’s father began calling from Atlanta, asking him, ”‘What are we going to do about this Hormel situation?’”
Goldman persisted, trying multiple iterations until he could satisfy even Phillip at Tony’s Hot Dogs, his biggest customer for the Hormels. Goldman says he might even like the new dogs better. The new pork and beef dogs are naturally smoked, he says, and the snap from the lamb casing matches the Hormel version.
The owners at Lew’s and Kevin’s agree, saying they plan to use Southern Packing’s new Norfolk dogs once the supply of Hormels runs out.
But in Glen Allen near Richmond, Joey’s Hot Dogs is going its own way.
“I’ve got my own private brand,” says owner Joey Mirabile. “Joey’s Hot Dogs. From me. Private label.”
Mirabile knows Norfolk dogs. He’s son to Tony Sr. and brother to Phillip, and his hot dog store is home to artifacts from the original Tony’s Hot Dog location on Lafayette Boulevard in Norfolk. He’s got Tony Sr.’s original ladle, and he’s got a brick from the old building.
When Joey heard the Hormel dogs were going away, he started making some phone calls.
“I called vice presidents at Hormel to speak to them. At first they turned me down. But I kept calling.”
In an e-mail, he finally got hold of the full ingredient list for the natural-casing Hormels, though the executive wouldn’t disclose exact proportions. In the meantime, Mirabile had already sent some dogs off to the lab for back-engineering.
Mirabile made a spreadsheet with nine tasting criteria including “bite” and salt — and went through months of tweaking. He asked only “native Norfolk palates” for their input, holding tastings at his shop.
Now, Mirabile thinks his version of the Norfolk dog is nearly indistinguishable from the Hormel. “I’ve been serving them side by side and people can’t tell the difference,” Mirabile said.
The new Norfolk dogs will likely replace the Hormels in May, both at Joey’s and in the Hampton Roads shops supplied by Southern.
In the meantime, there’s one place old-school fans can stock up on Hormel dogs for their home freezer: The Country Butcher Shop at 640 Dam Neck Road in Virginia Beach gets its dogs from Southern Packing.
Just don’t come calling at Southern Packing asking for Hormels. Goldman is selling them exclusively to his existing customers.
“That was the first promise I made,” he said.