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Spring ritual: Red Top hot dogs along frozen Lake Erie

Die-hard people huddled in cars eating lunch. Brave souls trying to enjoy spring sunshine despite Lake Erie wind chills in exchange for a taste of summer. These are typical scenes this time of year at Red Top in Hamburg.

That’s the way it’s been since 1946 when the original founder returned from the war and opened the hot dog stand. Today, Dennis McNaney and his daughter Lisa run Red Top. They’ve preserved it in its original state since taking ownership in 1980. No one really knows why it’s called Red Top, but one thing is certain – it’s a Western New York pastime that customers still embrace.

Lisa talks about serving summer favorites like hot dogs and more along Lake Erie, often when it’s still frozen solid.

Question: You opened for the season on March 1 amid snow, did that deter people from coming in?

Answer: I always say, the thing that’s great about Buffalo and Buffalonians is that they don’t care. They’ll sit in their car or take it home. The only indoor seating we have is what I call the “executive lounge” - it seats two people. But Buffalonians will say, “Sun’s out, we’re going out! It’s 30? We’re going!” We have people sitting outside and I’ll be hard pressed to say it’s nice enough to sit on concrete benches, but the more power to you!

Jordan Shomper grills hot dogs at Red Top, which features display cooking. (Elizabeth Carey/Special to The News.)

Q: How does warm weather affect business?

A: Once the nice weather hits, people are ready to get out of the house and have a taste of summer and a char-broiled hot dog does it for them. That first shot of spring - if we were going to have even a 50-degree day or a 40-degree day with sun – people are ready for spring. They also like to come down and see the frozen lake. So it’s an interesting background – eating a hot dog by the frozen lake. It’s cool and it’s different.

Q: Wardynski hot dogs are your most popular item. What’s most unusual on your menu?

A: Cliff and Gladys Ball owned Red Top before us and they start an Italian sausage sandwich that’s unique – it’s two patties served from mild red sauce on a Kaiser roll - it’s like a meatball sub with Italian sausage.

Red Top's Italian sausage sandwich features two patties dripping in sauce. (Elizabeth Carey/Special to The News)

Q: What’s the secret behind your style of French fries?

A: We have a fresh-cut cottage fry. We cut them every morning and afternoon. Plus, we have old-fashioned, hand-spun milkshakes. We have a lot of flavors like orange, cherry or black raspberry.

Q: What has changed since Red Top opened in 1946?

A: Nothing has really changed. We might put in new windows or something, but if you were here in 1950 and you drove by today you’d say, “Oh my gosh, that’s the Red Top.”

Red Top has been preserved to look just like it did more than 70 years ago. (Elizabeth Carey/Special to The News.)

Q: Do a lot of people stop on their way to the beach?

A: Absolutely. But if we have nice weather in the spring, that’s when we’re busiest. The summer months are busy too, but Buffalo has done so much – there’s so much going on every weekend with festivals and chicken barbecues that spreads things out. So April, May, June - somewhere in there is busiest. It depends on the weather. If it’s nice in April, you’ll be slammed.

Q: After all these years, do you still manage to attract new customers?

A: There are so many people from Hamburg that don’t even know it exists. They’ll come in and say, “I drive by every day and never new it existed and I decided to stop in.” We have a wonderful staff and we’re glad to be back for another season and we have our fingers crossed for warm weather.

INFO: Red Top, 3360 Big Tree Road, Hamburg, 627-5163. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., until 9 p.m. in mid-April, 7 days. Closes seasonally at Thanksgiving.

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