“There’s so much tradition and history in this building,” says Chris Russo, sitting upstairs at Hot Dog Heaven, an Amherst landmark.
He opens a nearby drawer. It’s stuffed with hometown memorabilia stretching back to the 1970s: Comet Relays and homecoming programs from 1979, a portrait of football player Brian Sivinsky, yellowed newspaper clippings, and old menus and signs.
There’s even “The Great Little Hot Dog Book,” a palm-sized manual packed with recipes from sweet and sour dogs to fat dog casserole.
Our favorite, of course, is an Amherst News-Times issue from 1976. An inside story boasts how business partners Walt Armour and Jack O’Flanagan had opened a new restaurant on Cleveland Avenue, specializing in hot dogs.
They’d bought the 130-year-old house-turned-carryout and spent six months remodeling with the goal of having “the classiest hot dog and chili shop in the whole USA.”
Armour left the business early on but the name — O’Armour’s, or “old” Armours — stuck for decades. Flanagan ran the business for 40 years, selling it to Russo’s Partner Pack LLC on March 2 in a $400,000 transaction, according to county records.
Russo said he was remodeling the Brew Kettle on Church Street, which he also owns, when O’Flanagan pulled him aside and pitched the sale. “I think I surprised him that I said yes so quickly,” Russo said.
Business partner Rodney Davis also jumped in quickly. Both are Steele High School graduates who feel it’s important to have someone from Amherst running Hot Dog Heaven.
Russo said he remembers eating dogs there during grade school. The restaurant, he said, is an institution for generations of students.
It’s also a family for a generation of employees. Some have been there decades. “Jack built a family here,” Russo said.
Worker Lisa Ransick has worn a Hot Dog Heaven apron to work the past 17 years. “We have people come in all the time who we know their order. We can hand it right to them. They’re part of the family too,” she said.
Russo said with new ownership nothing is changing, but that’s not quite true — he’s already added baby stations in the bathroom, fixed up an employee break area, and added walk-in coolers.
One fixture that definitely won’t be going anywhere is Santa Claus.
For years, Hot Dog Heaven has erected a two-story inflatable Santa at the holidays and Russo said keeping it was written into the sale contract.
Now a 40th anniversary celebration is being planned Monday, July 11 with 40 cent hot dogs, 40 cent fries, and 40 cent drinks. The first 20 customers at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. will get free T-shirts.
So what keeps people going back to Hot Dog Heaven after all these years?
“It hits a sweet spot with people. Look at me – after 40 years, I’m still coming back,” Russo said. “It’s a tradition. It’s a friendly atmosphere, it’s priced right, and you see people you’ve always known behind the counter.”
“At the end of the day, it’s a hot dog place, but it’s much much more,” he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Hot Dog Heaven staffers pose: Angel Resto, Lisa Ransick, Jon Kernohan, Jonathan Parks, and Jordan Solomon.