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Don't Tread on Meat 

Hot dog store thrives in vegetarian vortex

Wednesday, Oct 9 1996
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They say that every dog has its day. In this reputedly liberal college town, maybe that old chestnut should be amended to include hot dogs.

At Top Dog in Berkeley, just south of the woodsy University of California campus, meat and libertarian thought have ruled for three decades. Customers waiting for German franks and hot links on a bun can read the walls, which are covered with libertarian bumper stickers, yellowed newspaper articles urging the privatization of the postal service, and hand-lettered signs with statements like, "Beware the leader" and "There's no government like no government."

Top Dog's contrast with its surroundings could not be more noticeable. The Free Speech, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements all thrived here. The city council at times appears to prefer debating Big Issues, condemning apartheid in South Africa and establishing sister-city relations with a Palestinian refugee camp. A policy tempest this past spring swirled around establishing sister-city status with Changde, in China's Hunan province, then immediately suspending it to protest Beijing's human rights record.

Accompanying Berkeley's tradition of protest has been a long-term swing away from meat-centered eating, inspired in part by books like Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, which still is in print after 25 years. Some of the country's finest vegetarian cuisine can now be found here, and meat has largely been on the run.

But not at Top Dog, celebrating its 30th anniversary as a bastion of carnivorous delights. On Durant, just east of the jammed, patchouli-scented shopping area on Telegraph, proprietor Dick Riemann oversees the management of two Berkeley meateries and checks in with his wife, Irene, who runs a third store in Oakland.

Asked how he accounts for a libertarian hot-dog shop's success in a notoriously vegetarian town, Riemann, 60, says, "[Berkeley]'s openly socialistic, whether or not they admit to it or even know it, [but] they still get hungry. We're not out there clobbering them with points of view; many people just ignore stuff I put out."

After an early-'50s stint in the Air Force and a brief teaching career, the Yonkers, N.Y., native and a buddy from Syracuse decided that California was ready for East Coast hot dogs.

The two opened the first shop in October 1966. "We opened on a Saturday morning with the paint still kind of wet on the floor. Bingo, we were immediately just mobbed. What we had failed to recognize was that it was a home football game day. You talk about a trial by fire."

Top Dog's libertarian angle became prominent after Riemann bought out his partner a year and a half later. Before launching Top Dog, he had run unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1965, garnering a respectable 9,300 votes on an anti-government platform. "Man's welfare equals natural resources plus human energy multiplied by tool efficiency," he wrote in that year's voter pamphlet. "Progress depends on investment-inspired profits. Down with government-initiated restrictions, destruction, and tyranny." And, far in advance of today's headlines, he wrote, "Up with free trade between freemen!" With his lower-key friend out of the picture, he was free to turn up the libertarian message.

Thirty years down the road, a sign inside Top Dog reads, "Politicians Unwelcome," and government regulation remains unpopular. As an example, Riemann points to a California Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing sheet headlined, "Watch Your Language!" The one-page missive warns employers against publishing "discriminatory and potentially discriminatory job specifications," listing examples of language to be avoided.

Some, like "draftsman" and "girl Friday," might strike many as justly banned, but the sheet also warns against innocuous terms like "student" and "honorable discharge." Riemann sees this as an affront to free speech, saying, "Where is George Orwell when we need him?"

The local health department also comes in for criticism (though Riemann does follow its rules). "I don't need a health department to tell me to handle food in an appropriate manner -- my customers would hand me my bank account on a bun if I didn't measure up to their standards. They can see what's going on," he says.

Indeed they can. A visitor to the Durant Top Dog could practically reach the grill, where at least five of the 10 available varieties of sausage seemed to be cooking at all times. The cook works right up against the counter, which features half a dozen stools for customers, all of whom are unashamed to celebrate being on top of the food chain. Most business seems to be take-out.

"I can probably trip over a minor [health] requirement here and there, but listen: You don't feed this many people for 30 years, you don't make a million dollars by poisoning people," Riemann says with some satisfaction -- if not without a little exaggeration.

He also objects to what he says are Berkeley's attempts to regulate his stores' hours -- they are open far into the night and have a late rush from bar closures -- and their customers' smoking habits. A reformed three-packs-a-day man, he nonetheless dislikes "dictating as to smoking on your own property -- where the hell do they get off telling me that I have to exclude smokers from here?" The government, he says, is not paying the rent and taxes on what is technically a private space. "It's not public property just because I cater to the public," he says.

Without any real competition locally, Riemann has tried franchising Top Dog, only to run into what he says are intractable regulations. "They've made franchising so onerous and laced with legality [in the United States]. ... I want to operate in and on free turf. I don't want to just stick my ass in the air and give the politicians more to aim at."

Looking overseas, he tried several years ago to franchise the Top Dog name in hyper-capitalistic Hong Kong, only to have a freak accident sink the business. A crowd celebrating New Year's Eve had gathered on the old cobblestone street just uphill from Top Dog Hong Kong, overlooking the city's financial district.

"I guess too many drinks were spilled and some of them started sliding downhill," he recalls, describing a horrifying scene of hundreds of revelers slipping down smooth, slimy cobblestones to their deaths. "Twenty-three people lost their lives in a matter of moments just being crushed and thrown into storefronts, fire hydrants, and what have you."

Afterward, Riemann says, "The older Chinese [had] this point of view that where there is violent death you should not go for seven weeks. So the bottom fell out of that market."

Riemann currently is looking at the Czech Republic -- with its stronger connection to sausages and hot dogs -- for his next franchising attempt. "It's the fastest-growing economy in Europe," he says, although "why they want to join the [European] common market leaves me cold."

In between answering questions, he takes phone orders for hot dogs and potato salad. Maintaining high quality is an issue for Riemann, who has hot dogs that are unavailable here trucked in from New York. "You'll never see a skinless hot dog at Top Dog," he says, launching into tube-steak thermodynamics. "A natural casing will permit smoke and the taste thereof to penetrate the membrane osmotically but not to leave again. And so a sausage with a natural casing will hold onto its taste better. But that is not the case with artificial casings, and skinless have no chance at all."

Riemann isn't fanatically pro-meat, however. "A few people have stepped up to say over the years, 'Why don't you have veggie dogs?' ... I'd love to have veggie dogs," he states, "but where is it? I've tried everything," he states. "The last one almost had the texture of chopped-up inner tube."

He has tried to contact the makers of veggie burgers -- some of which he finds tasty -- about making vegetarian sausages that he can use. "If you can make a [vegetarian] hamburger patty that is palatable, well what the hell, instead of a patty make a sausage form."

The commercial brands he has tried came up short. Practical considerations are critical, Riemann says. A veggie sausage "is going to stick and burn, it doesn't generate enough moisture from within, and, admittedly, fat. There has to be a certain amount of fat to fry a sausage."

The times just may be catching up to Top Dog. The Berkeley campus, once the scene of riots and the burning in effigy of then-governor Ronald Reagan, is noticeably more conservative in the '90s. Local legend Country Joe McDonald, famed for his anti-war ditty "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," spearheaded the drive for a memorial to Berkeley's 22 Vietnam War casualties.

Perhaps meat will one day regain its place of honor at our tables, but until then Top Dog will continue to lurk on the political and gastronomic outskirts of Berkeley. Riemann is sure the market will provide.

"If you want a better future, stick to the Yellow Pages. There's your leadership. For all its flaws -- and I don't say that people are perfect any more than I think I'm perfect -- you get your best chance of getting what you want out of life with a viable marketplace.

About The Author

Paul D. Kretkowski

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