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Thanks to Liaros, there’s no topping Ted’s hot dogs

People who insist that all hot dogs are the same never ate at Ted’s.

Even with the death this week of family patriarch Spiro T. Liaros, that’s not likely to change.

It starts with the line, where everyone waits – canoodling couples, hungry singles, families by the minivan load. Jawing, complaining, debating whether regular dogs would do or if foot-longs were necessary, the in-line dog debate is a natural appetite enhancer.

You tell the griller what you want, then watch your dogs added to the lineup, slowly blistering over the blazing lump hardwood charcoal. The griller further marks the Sahlen’s with his or her implements, setting the conditions for a crispy-charred dog flavored by fire.

Maybe, while you wait, you think of the last time you bought a “hot dog” in a ballpark, or at a 7-Eleven, a steamed tube whose sodden bun had more flavor than the meat. Maybe, despite Ted’s not being that cold – you’re a few feet from a blazing fire, after all – you shudder.

Then comes the moment when you express your Ted’s cred, by way of topping choices. Maybe you go for the regular, relying on the fixings applier to substitute Ted’s chili sauce for ketchup. Or maybe, based on the notion that you only go around once, you ask for the chili, cheese and onions. Plus fries, or an order of the shambolic onion rings, and a loganberry to complete the Ted’s trinity.

Many of those in line might not even know the name Liaros, the first family of the Buffalo hot dog world. Spiro Liaros took over Ted’s in the 1960s, carrying on a family business that his father, the original Ted, started in the 1920s to feed construction workers at the Peace Bridge site off Niagara Street. The Liaros influence wasn’t limited to hot dogs, either. As more Greek immigrants arrived in Buffalo, Ted’s workers spun off restaurants of their own, and those restaurants begat more, until most of the open-faced chicken souvlakis in town owed Ted’s some small debt of gratitude.

In the decades that followed, Liaros saw the restaurant become a chain that marked the Buffalo food landscape, with eight stores, plus one in Phoenix, where he moved in 1983. It wasn’t all success; some locations, like one at Cheektowaga’s Walden Galleria, eventually closed. A family dispute several years ago led to even more competition in the charcoal-grilled hot dog market.

Yet even as the Western New York fast-food business became dominated by international chains, Ted’s remained a Buffalo blue-collar staple in spite of its star character’s essential simplicity. Many of those in line could make a charcoal-grilled Sahlen’s dog in their own backyard, if they chose. They chose Ted’s.

The news of Liaros’ passing this week, at age 84, gave Ted’s fans everywhere a chance to reflect on the times when a hot dog is not just a hot dog.

“What’s so special about it is that it’s a fantastic hot dog. The way it’s charred on charcoal, that alone makes it,” said Matt Schrantz, who first made Ted’s dogs a staple of his diet while at the University at Buffalo from 1999 to 2003.

“But it’s also the whole atmosphere. When I’m ... with people who are not from the area, it’s a must stop. I think it reflects Western New York. Every part of the country has something like that but for me, in all my travels, Ted’s is a unique place.”

Recently Schrantz, now an assistant district attorney in Rensselaer County, met college buddies back in Buffalo for a sort of informal reunion.

“We voted on our preferred activities,” he said. “Our main lunch on Saturday was a return to Ted’s.”