The Secret Behind Myrtle’s Famous Hotdogs
July 1, 2012
Given the inventive, high-foodie tone of Vancouver's two-year-old food cart revolution, it's interesting that our busiest outdoor food cart-or at least the one with the longest lineups I've ever seen-was actually founded by someone with no food industry experience at all. His name is John Meier and he's not selling tandoori salmon fritters or Kobe meatballs or anything else even remotely innovative. He's selling hotdogs in Tsawwassen out of a cart named after his grandmother. And "booming" does not quite begin to describe the growing reputation of Myrtle's Famous Hotdogs. Queues of 30 people aren't uncommon, lined up down the sidewalk in front of the Tsawwassen Town Centre Mall on 56th Street, where Meier has been moving up to 300 wieners a day, Thursday through Sunday, for the year he's been in operation.
"I'm getting calls from Toronto and Washington," the Brooklyn-born Meier tells me, with his trademark wide-eyed intensity. "I'm getting people showing up in line who've travelled over two hours to try these dogs!"
It has to be noted that Meier, who is 56 this year, is part of the draw. A person of extraordinarily upbeat energies, he was once known affectionately in the apartment building where we both lived as "our Kramer." At that time, he was promoting a wrist-mounted device that restored hearing to the profoundly deaf. Later, he sold real estate, then drove limousines. But all the while, Meier was a fanatical collector: elephant toenail knives, high-lumen flashlights, survival gear, but most importantly books. Meier has today one of the most important collections of Canadian literature in existence. And if you think I'm exaggerating, consider that then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson once dropped by Meier's parents' place to look over his library and ended up staying for two-and-a-half hours.
Of course, collecting rare books isn't cheap. And a couple years back, just laid off by the limo company, Meier decided he need a new line. He'd been watching Eat Street on the Food Network. So he went to school on food carts, reading everything he could find online about the topic, then winnowing all possible menu ideas down to a single one: hotdogs. Why? Because Meier understands that to connect with customers you have to be passionate about what you're selling. And of all the foodstuffs he could recall eating over the years, none really moved him more than the dogs his grandmother bought him when he was a Brooklyn youngster.
So was Myrtle's Famous Hotdogs born. And after another intensive bout of research, so was Meier soon kitted out with what he describes as the "Cadillac" cart built by a manufacturer in Surrey. "I was obsessive," he says. "I wanted the best." Which is why he auditioned 10 different manufacturers before settling on the local one, proceeding to ramp up the basic cart with every conceivable option: top-of-the-line freezer/fridge, deep-cycle rechargeable battery, hot and cold running water, barbecue, steamer, a $2,000 collapsible roof, canopy lights, rust proofing. "It's basically a fully mobile commercial kitchen that I can run on remote locations for up to eight hours," Meier explains. "When the heath inspector first took a look at it, he said… ‘Wow.' He was impressed."
From the beginning, Meier's seriously down-home approach struck a big chord in Tsawwassen. Myrtle's hotdogs aren't gussied up with exotic ingredients. Meier serves the classics: the Chicago Dog loaded with a special neon-green relish imported from (yes) Chicago, plus sport peppers, tomato slices, and a dill pickle spear; the New York Dog with what appears to be an entire caramelized onion heaped on top; and the Chili Dog, which is slathered with a ladle of Meier's own firehouse chili. At the heart of each is a little piece of Meier's own personal history: a Nathans Famous Frankfurter, the exact same salty/schmecky sausage served to Meier at Coney Island. And that part of the story, to Meier and his customers, is very special.
"I tell people: if this isn't the best hotdog you've ever had in your life, I'll give you your money back," says Meier, who sampled 30 different hotdog brands before settling on his childhood favorite. "I'm not joking. And no one, not one person, has asked for their money back."
Where does Myrtle's go from here? Well, expansion is a possibility, although Meier is aware that more carts would mean he'd have to find more people like himself to run them, to banter with the crowd, to know people's names and favourites before they even hit the front of the line. There's a staffing problem with no easy solution.
As for the menu, one new dog is in the works. "The Delta Dog!" Meier says proudly. "That's my dream really: to have somebody from Chicago show up at Myrtle's and order a Delta Dog." It's still in the test kitchen, but expect it early this summer. And if it's not the best hotdog you ever ate in your life… But then, no point discussing that possibility, because it will be.