Original Kasper’s, Oakland’s iconic Chicago-style hot dog, will reopen
4521 Telegraph Ave. (at Shattuck Avenue), Oakland
Provisional opening: fall 2022
Emil Peinert has been obsessed with Original Kasper’s — the long-abandoned, graffiti-covered, four-hundred-ninety-square-foot triangular building on the island where Shattuck and Telegraph meet — for years. Peinert is co-owner of Oakland’s Kingfish Pub and Café and is widely credited with the 2009 reopening of the bar (100 years old, some say) as well as moving 35 yards, room by room, in 2015 from its original location. on Claremont Avenue at 5227 Telegraph Ave., so it’s safe to say that his appreciation of old buildings knows no bounds. There was something about the little iron apartment building that stayed with him for a decade – and now he’s renovating the place, hoping to reopen Temescal’s hot dog heaven d by fall 2022.
A bit of history and some ties to the past: Original Kasper’s founder, Kasper Koojoolian, and his brothers, as well as their cousins, the Beklian brothers, were Armenians who fled Turkey as young boys , traveling to France and then to Philadelphia before arriving in Chicago in the early 1900s. In 1929, after too many winters in Chicago, Koojoolian decided to move to California, where he opened the first Kasper’s. The Chicago-style dogs he served (precisely layered with sliced — not chopped — onions and tomatoes, traditionally described as “dragged through the garden”) were a hit on the West Coast.
Kasper’s son-in-law, Harry Yaglijian, was orphaned with his sisters in Armenia and lived in Russia, then Syria, Lebanon and Iran in his early years. He and his family moved to Cuba where he trained as a shoemaker, and in 1939 he immigrated to Southern California and expanded his lapidary skills, working as a gem cutter. None of these talents would have led him into the hot dog business, but he fell in love with and married Kasper’s daughter, Mary, which led him into a life of spreading mustard and taste (never ketchup, don’t even ask) on dogs nestled in steamed poppyseed buns at the Original Kasper’s location at 4521 Telegraph Ave., almost since it opened in 1943.
(Meanwhile, the Beklian brothers – the cousins mentioned above – opened their own hot dog stand in 1939 and called it Casper’s. Other relatives ran another Kasper’s on Telegraph in Berkeley .Civil lawsuit against Kasper’s owners for trademark infringement.To add to the confusion, there are now chains of Casper and Kasper, but there is only one original Kasper.Are we good? )
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Harry once said he had sold enough hot dogs to go around the moon, then – years later – revised his estimate to say “they would reach the farthest planet!” They would go around the universe! (I don’t know if the math would support that claim.) Harry’s son, also named Harry, once estimated that his father had sold up to five million hot dogs in the 50 years he worked at the Oakland spot.
Some have called the groomed dogs works of art. Once, a woman pulled over and ordered seven hot dogs to continue her flight to Denver to visit her father. “Take them or don’t come,” her father reportedly said. Others noted that Harry Sr. connected with people by putting makeup on each dog. He learned “at the counter” how to converse with his customers in multiple languages, former customers said.
But in 2003, Harry Jr. closed the Original Kasper’s to repair its then 60-year-old kitchen. But fixing the structure was more than Yaglijian could afford, and it never reopened. Since then, the building has been empty and condemned.
This is where Peinert comes in. A financial adviser who moved to the area in the mid-2000s, his affection for Kingfish is why the legendary bar remains – in 2005 it closed permanently for license violation, and it was Peinert and his partners who reopened the Kingfish in 2009. Even after moving, Peinert and his partners focused on preserving the history of diving and keeping things as they were.
He’s also the one working on building a tribute to the 128-year-old Spenger’s Fish Grotto restaurant in Berkeley, with $30,000 worth of Spenger memorabilia and a restaurant in the Kingfish space, but it’s a whole another story. Suffice it to say that Peinert approaches the Kasper project with the mindset with which he approached these other endeavors. He insists that the new Kasper will look and feel the same as the old one, only better and in line with current health and safety standards.
Old buildings are cool, but doing the kind of painstaking historic restoration that Peinert finds so satisfying is only part of the picture when it comes to Kasper. It’s about returning the whole building and making things better to today’s standards, but it’s also about restoring a part of the neighborhood that meant so much to so many.
Listening to a Soundprint documentary recorded at Kasper in 2003, you can hear the love in the voices of customers as well as the constant noise of the restaurant’s old-fashioned cash register. The restaurant’s atmosphere, one person said, was “like ‘friends’ only with hot dogs.” Another person said, “It’s a place — if there wasn’t one — there would be a hole in people’s lives. Kasper’s is a place that will always be there, because it has to be there.
In an Oakland Tribune article circa 1995, a reporter asked, “Where else could you snack on $1.99 tangy all-beef franks, sip Sarsparilla, Delaware Punch, [and] Yoo-Hoo is drinking chocolate…in a vintage setting next to a bucket of rainwater from a leaky roof? But that roof and decades of deferred maintenance are the reason Yaglijian closed the place, and it’s also why the renovation project took so long.
Apart from the interior work to be done, Kasper’s abundant amount of decorative neon lights need to be replaced. The white-aproned cartoon character on the rooftop, said to be a comic representation of Kasper himself, also needs a makeover. The building, described by KALW as a “melancholy landmark for longtime residents and a mysterious artifact for newcomers”, will eventually return to its bright red and mustard yellow color scheme (but with some of its current mural preserved). The restaurant’s original nine bar stools are in storage, ready to get back to playing when Kasper’s – the oddly shaped little building with a dedicated team behind it – reopens.
But when will it be? A few weeks ago, work on the building had made considerable progress, so Peinert said he hoped to open Kasper’s as soon as possible. But there is no firm opening date yet. Given supply chain delays and other construction issues, it’s hard to predict whether Kasper’s will open later this summer or early fall.
But once that’s all done, Kasper’s will once again serve those classic Chicago dogs (with a few more menu items, too) along with sodas, beer and wine – to enjoy on the go or in the new seating area. outside.
One might ask: when is a hot dog more than a hot dog? Perhaps when it represents a time when a neighborhood bandstand welcomed all kinds of people: politicians, students, workers, sports heroes, rock stars, actors, couples making one last stop before the delivery room, families, high rollers and those out of luck – and anyone in need of that simple, perfect original Kasper dog. And then there’s the dish, itself, a potential symbol for the East Bay, despite its Midwestern origins.
Renowned food historian and hot dog lover Bruce Kraig describes the Chicago-style hot dog as “the epitome of ethnic mixing, from the basic sausage to the toppings of the assembled hot dog.
“You, the individual, can get there through courage and luck. That’s what hot dog places are there for… Americans revere the idea of individualism and, at the same time, community. Going to a stall or standing on the street and eating from a cart reinforces all of those feelings that come from the experience. And these days, Americans need all the courage, luck, and community they can get.
Risa Nye is from the Bay Area. She writes mostly about cocktails, but sometimes jumps off the bar stool to write about historic East Bay establishments and other things.