Johnny's O's Is More Than A Hot Dog Stand: It's Chicago's History

United States of Hot Dogs is a recurring feature exploring the historic origins and modern appeal of America's regional hot dogs.

Johnny O's, a hot dog stand at 35th and Morgan in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, closed, and I mourned its passing even though I never once set foot in the place.

The ramshackle two-story building housed a modest grocery and package-goods corner store, but I never went inside. Instead, like the vast majority of customers from the neighborhood and around the world, I ordered from a rectangular hole cut into the building's south wall, getting my Vienna Beef hot dog (with mustard and heavy onions) from the workers half a story below in the basement kitchen. One of the women who worked there was quite short and had to get on tiptoe and stretch to accept my cash and hand up my food.

The place became internet-famous in 2010 after its mother-in-law sandwich (a corn tamale on a hot dog bun with chili, cheese, onions hot peppers, and other condiments) was ranked the sixth best sandwich in the country on TLC. It was regularly featured on local news food features, but I found it by happenstance rather than TV.

I became so attached to the joint because of how I navigate Chicago: by bike. Since 2006, I have been a warm-weather semi-regular at Johnny O's because twice a week I ride 25 miles across the city between my place in the far northeast corner of Chicago and my sweetheart's home on the far Southwest Side.

Such expenditure of energy requires fuel, and so I choose my route based on hot dog stands along the way. Any city dweller has this sort of mental map, knitting up their understanding of the city by emphasizing what they most love to visit, whether it's parks, or bookstores, or music venues, or Italian restaurants, or sushi joints, or bars. For me, it's hot dog stands. (Okay, also bars, but that's another essay.)

Up north, I would hit the original Byron's on Irving Park Road, or Weiner's Circle on Clark Street. Maybe stop at Jim's Original on South Union by what little remains of Maxwell Street (original home of the Vienna Beef Chicago dog, but not the famous Chicago dog medley of seven condiments: just mustard and grilled onions, maybe hot peppers, at Jim's). If I take a more westerly route, I'd pop into George's, or sometimes Odge's, on Damen. Late in the southbound ride, Don's at 77th and Kedzie was good for the final push, or to bring my sweetheart an order of fries. (Note to my cardiologist: I would hit at most one stand per week. I do love encased meats, my friend, but I also want my arteries to remain as free-flowing the quiet side streets I favor for biking.)

Bridgeport is the halfway point of my journey, and when I happened to take 35th Street one day and rode by Johnny O's, it was love at first sight. Because of the hole-in-the-wall design, I didn't have to lock up my bike and lug my panniers full of books, papers, and laptop into the place. Roll up, lean my bike against the wall, order, pay, tip, eat, go. If there was no line—though there usually was a line—it would take less than five minutes from arrival to departure. It also didn't hurt that the dogs were always properly steamed, and the onions freshly diced and plentiful.

Johnny O's also distinguished itself against many other hot dog stands by its prices. Like most such places, fries are included with every order. But I don't want fries, just the dog. They had an unlisted lower price for a stand-alone dog, so even with a good tip I was getting a tasty bite for four bucks.

But Johnny O's is, or was, more than just another hot dog stand. Its history tells the story of the industrial and post-industrial city, of neighborhood culture and gentrification, of conflicts over identity and civil rights.

Just as I never set foot inside Johnny O's, I never met Johnny O. But after his death in 2017, coverage in local news sources made it clear that he had a personality and forward-looking values that marked the place as unique even as it exemplified transformations in urban America over the last several decades.

Johnny Veliotis began his food-selling life in the mid-1940s with hot dog carts, vending red hots and mother-in-law sandwiches for a nickel in front of warehouses, factories, and the old Comiskey Park. Johnny was a quintessential neighborhood guy—his "Johnny O" moniker given him by teammates on Bridgeport amateur football teams—and he even flirted with a career as a lounge singer.

After it opened 1970, Johnny O's housed a bar and grill as well as the hot dog stand. For decades, the hot dog stand portion of the operation was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to serve second and third shift workers from Bridgeport's many booming industries. Industrial workers need filling and hearty food served quickly for their short meal breaks, and hot dog stands do all that.

Yet such businesses inevitably get tangled up with Chicago's history of racial conflict. The Spiegel Catalog Company warehouse, a quarter of a mile west at 35th and Racine, and other workplaces nearby had many Black workers. Bridgeport was notoriously hostile to Blacks, and while they might be able to work in the neighborhood, they certainly did not live there and were made to feel aggressively unwelcome in bars and restaurants.

Here Johnny O was atypical of his native neighborhood: He served everyone, and the people who worked and ate there created real bonds that endured. Long-retired or scattered around the city, Black Spiegel warehouse workers turned out in force for the memorial service thrown by Johnny O's family in a local park the summer of his passing.

Bridgeport has become more open and tolerant as gentrification, the not-quite-inevitable offspring of deindustrialization, worked its alchemy. The Spiegel warehouse is now the Bridgeport Arts Center, and a booming creative scene has brought new life into the area and its former industrial infrastructure. But it's a mixed blessing: Such adaptive re-use is better than demolishing the old places (which can birth deindustrialization's other child, blight) but artists and their clientele are not as reliable a source of hungry customers day in and day out.

With their necessarily low prices and razor-thin profit margins, hot dog stands are the canaries in the coal mine of gentrification, and the closing of Johnny O's reminds us of that fact. I imagine the building—or the land—at 35th and Morgan is now worth more than the business itself. "My dad left a few big loans and they are maturing," Johnny's son Peter told the news website Block Club Chicago. "So I have to pay off his loans, and because of that I fell behind on licensing and products. It would take a couple hundred thousand to get on top of things."

Rumors had swirled that things weren't going well lately, and more than once this summer I rode by to find the place closed on a sunny Sunday or Friday afternoon. A GoFundMe campaign hadn't succeeded in meeting its goal of $100,000 (it had raised just $595); Peter Veliotis said he wasn't an online fundraiser kind of guy. In September, he and his brother and co-owner Alex announced that they were shutting the business down. But just as many restaurants have "soft openings" before officially serving the public, it seems that Johnny O's might have had a "soft closing": last Friday, the Veliotises announced that they would be selling hot dogs again while they try to sell the building for what they think it's worth.

But I didn't know that when official word of the closing hit the internet and the street in mid-September. So it seemed that the least I could do was manage to stop there one last time. I grabbed a dog on the second-to-last day, and as I ate, people came up to say goodbye to their neighbors who'd been feeding them for years, or decades. The closing of Johnny O's would leave a gap in their Chicago even more than it would in mine.

I left a ridiculous tip for the diminutive woman whose name I never learned, ate my hot dog, got on my bike and rode off.