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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

A Brief History of the Hot Texas Wiener

According to Chris Betts, the Hot Texas Wiener was invented around 1924 by "an old Greek gentleman" who owned a hot dog "stand" (a loose restaurant-business term for a small restaurant; this one apparently sat ten or fifteen customers at a counter) on Paterson Street in downtown Paterson. This gentleman was experimenting with various chili-type sauces to serve on his hot dogs, and apparently drew upon his own culinary heritage for the first Hot Texas Wiener chili-sauce recipe.

Outdoor sign half block away from Libby's.

As Betts and Nick Doris mentioned when I questioned them about the sauce's origins, it resembles Greek spaghetti sauce, which contains tomatoes, meat, and a similar combination of spices. As Betts's account also suggests, the chili sauce is considered the crucial ingredient in this new food, its invention defining and separating the Hot Texas Wiener from the hot dogs the "old Greek gentleman" was serving before.

Two important aspects of this early history remain undocumented: the name of the "old Greek gentleman" and his business, and his reasons for naming his new food the " Hot Texas Wiener ." Documentary research in newspapers, other local periodicals, and business directories of the period, as well as interviews with older workers, may well identify the Hot Texas Wiener's inventor and his place of business, although smaller businesses in working-class areas did not often receive much coverage in mainstream publications.

Exterior of the Colonial Grill, in a strip of stores on 464 Chamberlain Avenue on Paterson's west side.

The specific reasons for his choice of "Texas," unfortunately, are more likely to remain unexplained. I suppose that, seeking to give a unique and, for Paterson, exotic name to his new and somewhat spicy food — itself characterized by a sauce whose name ("chili") carries Western, Latino, and cowboy associations — he might have chosen the "Texas" designation to give his creation what today we'd call an "image."

For several years the Paterson Street location was the major outlet for Hot Texas Wieners, but in 1936 a Paterson Street employee named William Pappas left and opened Libby's Hot Grill on McBride Avenue and Wayne Street, across the street from the Great Falls on the Passaic. Libby's —still in operation today in the same location — was extremely successful, in part because of the quality of its food and in part because of its location, near to its clientele of workers in Paterson's textile mills and other plants, and on one of the main highways to and from New York City.

Close-up of tray of food being held by Nick Doris.

In its heyday, Libby's employed over thirty people. Several of these employees took the knowledge and skills they gained at Libby's into their own Hot Texas Wiener businesses. For example, former Libby's employees opened Johnny and Hanges, on River Street, in the north end of Paterson, in 1940, and many long-time employees in other Hot Texas Wiener businesses received valuable experience at Libby's. (Johnny and Hanges is still in operation, though under different ownership.)

In May 1949, Paul Agrusti, another Libby's employee, left to open the Falls View Grill — two blocks east of Libby's, at the bottom of the hill where Market and Spruce Streets intersect, even more centrally located in the Paterson Falls mill area — with three Greek brothers, Chris, George, and William Betts. After they returned from military service in World War II, the Bettses had gained experience in the Hot Texas Wiener business by leasing the Olympic Grill — which sat directly across McBride Avenue from Libby's — from John Patrelis, who had founded it in 1940. Also with an excellent location, convenient to working people from the mills and to major highways of the time, the Falls View was also quite successful for many years.

For two years, 1964 to 1965, the partners also operated a second location — the Falls View Grill East — in Elmwood Park, east of Paterson. Though the Bettses sold the business after a few years, it is still in operation as the Riverview Grill. Thus the three most-remembered Hot Texas Wiener restaurants of the post- World War II period — Libby's, the Olympic, and the Falls View — were located within a stone's throw of one another, of the mill buildings which were once the most important working-class workplaces in town, and one of the major east-west highways through Paterson.

Paul Agrusti left the Falls View in 1978 to open the Colonial Grill on Chamberlain Avenue; his son Leonard now runs it. The Betts brothers sold the Falls View business in 1984, but its buyers were not successful in operating the business and sold it in 1988. The building, in the midst of Paterson's historic manufacturing district, now houses a Burger King. Chris Betts's son now is part owner of the Haledon Grill on Haledon Avenue.

Nick Doris emigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1954, and began working as a French-fry cook at the Falls View just after his arrival. Over the next several years he worked his way into knowledge of the whole occupation. In 1961, he and three partners — another Greek, Peter Leonidas, who has since passed away, and two Italians, Carlo Mendola and Dominic Sportelli — opened the Hot Grill on the site of Gabe's, a car lot and Hot Texas Wiener operation on Lexington Avenue, just over the city line into Clifton.

Since that opening day the Hot Grill has become quite successful, and is recognized throughout the area as perhaps the most authentic of Paterson's many Hot Texas Wiener restaurants. As Chris Betts said of the Hot Grill, "We were the old champs, and they're the new champs." The Hot Grill now employs thirty-five people, and the partners own two other restaurants, one serving Hot Texas Wieners, and the other more of a full-service restaurant.

Listen

Chris Betts and Nick Doris recount the history of Hot Texas Wiener stands in the Paterson area.

Nick Doris: "They taste the sauce...and then automatically ...they knew...what a Texas Wiener all-the-way was."

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