By Larry Schwingel
Debuting in 1979, Hot Dog Heaven quickly became Fort Lauderdale’s go-to destination for hickory-smoked Vienna Beef hot dogs. But, if it wasn’t for a twist of fate, Barry Smith would be selling pizzas instead of sausages.
After graduating from college and working as a nighttime wine steward, he and his retired parents, Seymour and Roslyn Star, decided it was time for a change.“I had a friend in Tampa who was successful in the pizza business, so we decided that’s what we wanted to do,” Smith says. “After we paid rent on the first property, we learned that Pizza Hut, Luv’n Oven and Mario the Baker were across the street.” Not wanting to compete and realizing that rent for the pizza parlor was $1,200 a month while a hot dog stand was $400, they chose a new location on Sunrise Boulevard and have been there ever since. Adds Smith, “And that’s how we got into the hot dog business.”
What once was a “grab and go” fast-food hot dog stand is now a restaurant with outdoor tables and an expanded menu of various types of hot dogs, char-broiled sandwiches, Italian specialties and numerous side dishes. “We don’t skimp or cheat on ingredients and our food is always fresh,” Smith says. “We are the real deal.” Hot Dog Heaven is a throwback restaurant—small, but big on flavor. It serves Chicago-style hot dogs. A tradition that began in the 1930s is carried on as customers enjoy savory sausages nestled in steamed poppy-seed buns and covered with a combination of yellow mustard, bright green relish, freshly chopped onions, juicy red tomato wedges, a crisp half-sour pickle spear, a dash of celery salt and a couple of spicy sport peppers for a little extra zest. This hot dog creation with a “salad on the top” is memorable for its interplay of hot and cold, crisp and soft, sharp and smooth.
Hot Dog Heaven sources its meat from the Midwest-based Vienna Beef Company, which about 30 years ago didn’t have much of a presence in South Florida. So, Smith seized an opportunity to gain the company’s support and promote his business. “I told them that I had Vienna Beef signs all over the place, we were affordable, and had a lot of repeat customers who loved the taste of Vienna Beef hot dogs,” he says. After negotiations, the company granted permission for him to call Hot Dog Heaven the first national Vienna Beef hot dog stand.
As the neighborhood surrounding the eatery continues to change, Smith welcomes new customers daily. “There’s no lunchtime crowd like before as people continue to work remotely, so our customer base is a little different,” he says. “We don’t have generations of people familiar with our product like before, but we’ve stood the test of time.” So has its famous hot dog statue, Frank. “It’s a unique symbol that represents our product, and although the city wanted it taken down, I told them it was a piece of art, we went to court and we won” Smith recalls, “Working with my wife and parents has been an incredible experience, and knowing we made Hot Dog Heaven a landmark in this town is very gratifying.”
101 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale