For as long as I can remember, visiting my grandfather, Cal Furino, meant one thing: hot dogs. His food truck, Cal’s Hot Dogs, was an institution at the corner of Newark and Harrison streets, on Hoboken’s west side. Originally a pushcart, later a blazing-red truck, Cal’s sold hot dogs, orange drink and little else to commuters, truckers and locals six days a week.
Cal was born in Hoboken in 1933, the son of Italian immigrants Felice and Mary Furino. Felice was a longshoreman. Cal was the fourth of six children.
Drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Cal went through basic training at Camp Hope in Louisiana, but the war ended before he could be shipped overseas. He came home, married his sweetheart, Claire Turek, and went back to a job at a Hoboken paper factory. Seven months later, he was laid off.
“There was no work around,” he recalls, “so I got a pushcart.” The hot dog stand was not meant to be a permanent solution. “I said, ‘I’ll do it temporarily.’ And I did it for 52 years,” he says with a laugh. Cal, now 82 and living a block from his old hot-dog haunt, retired in 2008.
Prices for hot dogs in the 1950s were charmingly low. “They were 15 cents a hot dog,” he reminisces. “Then I raised it to 20 cents. I’d never jump more than 10 cents in price at one time.” By the time he served his last dog, they were selling for $2 each.
The regulars at Cal’s were especially hot for his toppings, which he originally dished out for 5 cents each; over the years, they climbed to a quarter. The toppings included sauerkraut, onions and chili—all homemade. The onions were stewed in tomato sauce. “My wife made the best onions and chili,” says Cal.
Claire chimes in: “Everyone loved our onions and chili. And they’d all say, ‘We’ll pay you for the recipe!’” But Claire wouldn’t surrender the family secret. “Never. I had hundreds of people ask me for the recipe, and they all used to say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to open up a stand, I just want the recipe for when I have a barbecue.’ Yeah, right!”
Politicians, entertainers and athletes—including the late Yankees catcher Elston Howard and boxer Chuck Wepner—ate at Cal’s. Old Blue Eyes never stopped by for a dog, but that other Hoboken-bred singer, Jimmy Roselli, did.
My grandfather’s most infamous customer was Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer better known as the Iceman. “He would stand in a certain spot at the far end of the counter,” Cal recalls. “He used to order mustard and onions every time. He dressed normal, dressed sharp. He was polite. You would have sworn he was a lawyer.” (Kuklinski, a Jersey City native, was eventually convicted of five murders.)
Cal estimates he sold more than 2 million dogs in his day. He has no regrets. “I’m very contented, I’m in good health,” he says. “I have no ifs, ands or buts about my life.” Remarkably, he says, “I still eat hot dogs once a week”—often from a hot dog stand at his old location, run by my uncle, Russell.
Giaco Furino is a Brooklyn-based writer. His favorite from Cal’s was the chili dog with onions and spicy brown mustard.Click here to leave a comment