Tales from The O: Former Employees Remember Legendary Restaurant
The closing of the legendary Original Hot Dog Shop adjacent to Pitt’s campus has spawned an outpouring of love and memories for the Pitt eatery, with former Pitt students and Pittsburghers in general lamenting the loss of a cultural touchstone in the Oakland neighborhood after 60 years.
But perhaps no group of people has more to share than those that worked behind the counters of The O.
Dr. Edward Dongell, now of Cresson, Pa., worked for owners Syd and Moe Simon full-time for five months in 1973 and part-time thereafter while he was completing his degree at Pitt’s dental school.
Dongell spoke with Pittsburgh Sports Now about working at the iconic restaurant. He recalled a more pleasant time than the eerie streetscape available on Monday, with most of the signage and fixtures removed from the storefront.
“In those days, at lunchtime, it was three deep, every day,” Dongell said. “Every single day and we were open seven days a week, but a lot of times, it was three deep, constantly.
“Then when there is football, it was like, really crazy. They were coming in from everywhere. It was hard to keep up. It was hard. It was just hard to keep up.”
While The O was open seven days a week, for many people, returning to the shop was associated with Pitt athletics. Whether it was a basketball game at Fitzgerald Field House or a football game at Pitt Stadium, an Oakland event meant a full house at The O.
“Syd would call me and say, ‘Can you come down when had a basketball game?’” Dongell recalled. “I would go down there and it would be packed at night. … I remember one night, meeting Connie Hawkins. Billy Knight, Tony Dorsett, all those guys would come in.”
Dongell became fast friends with Bruce Simon, who became one of the second generation to run the family business.
“They were very good to me,” Dongell said. “They all were very good to me. The last day, I quit my first year of ’73, Syd slipped me $50 before I left, which was unheard of in those days and 50 bucks was like a million bucks. But I was only allowed to use to buy dental equipment. So, that’s what I used it for. It was a wonderful place to work.”
Much like Pitt alumni, returning to The O was a frequent venture for those that worked there, as well. So Dongell, on one of his return trips, might have been waited on by Kari Nelson, when she worked at The O from 2012-15. Nelson came to Pittsburgh to attend Pitt after growing up in Ohio. The O was her immersion into Pitt and Pittsburgh culture.
“One of my favorite nights to work would be on the nights where there was a Pitt basketball game,” Nelson told PSN. “So you’d have a ton of people rushing in for the basketball game, and then they’ve head up to the Pete. They had to stop and they get their O dog and their fries beforehand. That was fun because I got to see people who were Pitt students years before I was and they were there bringing their kids there. So there were a lot of good memories and everyone had a story to share with you.”
While the stop, which was founded in 1960, was still fairly young when Dongell plied its counters, Nelson was a bit more aware of the history of the place when she first started to work there.
“Everything in there had been there forever,” she said,. “You know. So there was a painting of Bruce and Terry’s mom on the wall, the Essie from Essie’s Original Hot Dog Shop. The guy who painted that was a regular customer.”
What kept people coming back for all that time was a menu that featured a variety of products, but really centered around two highlights: the namesake hot dogs and enough french fries in an order to feed a small army.
“They got their hot dogs from Chicago,” Dongell said. “That’s where they came in from and they were all beef hot dogs. They had hotdogs and the next big seller was the super burgers, besides the fries, of course. The fries were famous.”
Equally famous, or perhaps infamous, was the slightly less than sparking reputation for cleanliness. Known by some as “The Dirty O,” the bright indoor signage was known to have a spot or two of grease on it at the end of a long day of cooking.
“I will tell you being back there behind the fry stand, you’re slipping and sliding,” Nelson said. “Don’t pick your feet up. You just need to skate across it.”
“When I had to work in the fry place, it was hard,” Dongell recalled. “It was hot. Didn’t have no gloves, no hairnet, nothing like that. It was just hot and you were pushing out those fries like crazy. Because that’s what people loved. That’s what they came in for.”
In recent times, business had slowed on his return trips to The O, Dongell said, and he thought some of the reason was the change in eating habits of students.
“I was down there a couple of years ago, I was sitting with Bruce and we were talking, and it was lunchtime, and my family was there and I was there and there was only one person at the counter,” Dongell said. “I just couldn’t believe it. Bruce said, ‘Well, they opened a bunch of vegetarian places and people don’t eat hot dogs like they did back in the day, back in the 70s and 80s and 90s.’”
As the business lives on as a memory, it will join many other Pitt institutions that have closed up shop over the years, a trend that even a recent alumnus such as Nelson can recognize.
“There there are so many bars that have closed around there, too, that were staples,” she said. “And now with The O leaving, it’s taken another place of familiarity away. So, I’m hoping that the next place that comes in, they’re not going to be able to fill the shoes of The O, but hopefully, it’s another place that people will be able to build memories with at Pitt.”
Really, when it comes down to it, that’s what The O’s legacy will be. Not just hot dogs and fries, but a place with a shared set of memories and tradition that could be passed on.
“You made a lot of connections in that place,” Dongell said. “You met a lot of people from hospitals, and schools, med schools, dental school and professors. You met a lot of people if you knew what to say.”
“It was definitely a place where you could get to know people,” added Nelson. ”I met some friends that I still talk to now that would come there and become regulars. Even Terry, one of the co-owners, I became pretty close with her.”
Nelson, who is now a marketing professional in the Pittsburgh area, keeps her time at The Original Hot Dog Shop prominently featured on her professional resume.
“Everybody wants to talk about it,” she said.
That’s what happens when a place becomes much more than a restaurant and a culture and historic touchstone of the area.
“They were,” Dongell summarized, “An institution.”
The cheese steak was terrific. Came into town for a Syracuse game two years ago and had to go to the “O”. Last year before the North Carolina game same scheme. Gonna miss it.