Hot Dog Heaven on a Thousand Oaks Sidewalk

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a dog day afternoon in Thousand Oaks. Chili dogs, that is. Also onion dogs, kraut dogs, mustard dogs and just plain dogs. Or how about a Ferrari dog with racing stripes?

These are the creations of John Smiley, a dogged entrepreneur who transforms a stretch of sidewalk along Townsgate Road into a hot dog heaven every weekday.

Customers begin to gather around Smiley's silver cart shortly after he opens at 11 a.m. Some travel in packs. For five years, Smiley has squatted on the same site amid a strip of office complexes.

"Hot dog man--how's it goin?" one of his regulars growls by way of greeting.

The location offers certain amenities, such as the two telephone switching boxes that would not usually be considered useful for anything except getting the phones to work.

Chest-high, and wide enough to accommodate four good friends, they happen to make ideal lunch counters for stand-up dining. These undoubtedly are the cleanest switching boxes in GTE California's system. Smiley wipes them down after every customer.

For patrons who prefer a sit-down lunch, Smiley arranges a few bath towels along a low cinder-block wall.

He also offers outdoor dining, on a skinny, grassy knoll between the sidewalk and the parking lot of a business complex. Savvy customer Greg Zepeda brings along a blanket. He and his grandmother, Lorraine McKeighan, bask in the sun and catch up on family matters over a couple of dogs.

And Smiley offers a guarantee with every dog.

"It's like American Express," he says. "If you drop it, I'll give you another one."

At $1.75 apiece (free to the homeless), these are not wieners or franks. Nor are these just any breed of dog. These are Sabrett's New York Hot Dogs.

To a native New Yorker such as Smiley, the word "Sabrett" has immediate resonance, much as "Macy's" or "Knicks."

Customer Ron Thorstenson tries to explain this to a non-New Yorker.

"Sabrett's," he declares. "The only hot dogs in the world."

Because Smiley's stand reminds them of hot dog vendors back home, it attracts displaced New Yorkers as George Steinbrenner attracts fines.

"New Yorkers get together here. We can talk about stickball and skelly," says Bill Mitchell, once of the South Bronx, referring to street games. In skelly, youngsters flick bottle caps into chalk squares on the sidewalks.

"What? You don't know skelly? Oh, man . . . "

Mitchell's offices are conveniently situated across the street from Smiley's Hot Dogs.

"Let me tell you something," Mitchell confides. "When I have lunch meetings with clients, I stop here and have a hot dog first. I'm addicted."

At Smiley's, nobody takes a doggie bag.

The record is 13 dogs eaten at a single sitting, set earlier this year by one of his regulars.

But most customers, such as Dave Hagiwara, are satisfied with one or two. Hagiwara brought two co-workers from the regional headquarters of State Farm Insurance.

"He makes a really good Ferrari dog with racing stripes," Hagiwara says, displaying his second. A Ferrari dog, he explains, consists of Smiley's homemade chili, sauteed onions, mustard and a line of cheese squirted from a can (the cheese serves as the stripe). More New York lingo? Not really, Smiley says.

"A guy would come by in a Ferrari and ask for that combination. So I called it a Ferrari dog."

Myron Keene, who works at Diamond Litho, holds a keen appreciation for Smiley's craft. Keene once owned three Sabrett's hot dog stands in Woodland Hills. It was, he sighed, a dog-eat-dog existence.

"The city drove us crazy. The police, the Health Department. If there was a restaurant in the location, they'd say, move along. Even if it was private property. There would always be something. First it was no bathroom. Like a vendor is supposed to have bathrooms. Then it was no hot water," Keene said.

Bureaucrats from the city of Thousand Oaks have also been on Smiley's tail. City officials had threatened to ban vendors from city streets, but recently called a truce and are letting sleeping dogs lie.

Now, about the only thing that can change Smiley's smile to a hangdog look is the weather.

"All the weatherman needs to say is '20% chance of rain today,' " Smiley says. "Everybody packs a sandwich, and it's a lousy day for work."

During the winter's seemingly endless drizzle, Smiley stayed home in Simi Valley and watched soap operas.

The hot dog stand is Smiley's second job. He begins his workday at 1 a.m. as a milkman for Alta-Dena Dairy. When he gets home at 6 a.m. he starts cooking for lunch. Bedtime arrives in the afternoon.

But Smiley doesn't complain about the hours, because every hot dog makes his day.

"The regular job pays the bills," Smiley says. "The hot dog truck sends you on vacation."

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