Hot Dog Business On A Roll

March 14, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Harry Sirinakis has declared himself the top dog in Carroll County.

So confident in his hot dogs is the third-generation chef and owner of Harry's Main Street that he called for a hot dog competition a few weeks ago. No one dared to take on the man who can broil 1,000 dogs an hour as passers-by stop to watch.

"No one took the challenge, but I had about 100 customers volunteer to judge the contest," said Mr. Sirinakis, 33.

His Westminster restaurant has been renowned for hot dogs smothered in spicy chili and topped with onions since his grandparents opened the downtown diner almost 50 years ago.

Harry's hot dogs are the stuff of legends among retired Baltimore Colts, who got a taste for the entree when the team had its training camp at Western Maryland College in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. Sirinakis proudly displays a menu autographed by Johnny Unitas. But the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback refers all queries to his former teammate Art Donovan.

"If you want to talk hot dogs, talk to Artie," Mr. Unitas said.

In his autobiographical "Fatso," Mr. Donovan, a former defensive lineman, mentions Harry's and its famous frankfurters. He would stack them up against Coney Island dogs, savored during his Bronx boyhood years, he said.

"Some of the greatest dogs I have ever eaten," Mr. Donovan said. "I am getting hungry just thinking about them."

He recalled an evening when he and teammate Don Joyce each feasted on 25 dogs with double chili sauce and onions.

"There was no weigh-in the next day, so we figured we were safe," he said. "We ate $45 worth of the stuff and had to charge it. George [Harry's father] was a great Colts fan, so he let us run a tab."

Mr. Donovan said he still makes infrequent trips to Westminster.

"Nobody enjoyed that town more than we did," he said. "I would go back to Harry's anytime."

Along with hot dogs, burgers and light fare, Harry's menu details the history of his family, which built a business and a "reputation you can taste" on hot dogs -- a "likable, fun food that appeals to all ages."

"Everywhere else, you get a slab of baloney in a bun," said Bill Thomas, a Westminster resident who says he "comes out of his way" to dine at Harry's several times a week.

"This is the place where hot dogs are serious business with a lot of little bonuses, like free parking, newspapers out front and lemonade in the dead of winter," Mr. Thomas said.

The contest-that-never-was rekindled many memories of the restaurant, which dates to 1946, when the original Harry opened with five booths and 12 stools.

"We used to slide across the booths and get splinters," Mr. Sirinakis said.

For about 20 years before he settled in Westminster, Harry Amprazis, called "the ultimate entrepreneur" by his grandson and namesake, made many trips to the United States from Greece and set up several restaurants on the East Coast.

"He would get a restaurant going, sell it and go back to his family in Greece," Mr. Sirinakis said.

Eventually tiring of travel, Mr. Amprazis moved to Carroll's county seat with his wife, Bessie. At age 55, he opened Harry's Lunch. The couple lived in an apartment above the store and were often called back to work downstairs by a few loud taps on the pipes.

Seven days a week the luncheonette sold the soon-to-be famous hot dogs for 10 cents. Today, $1.25 gets a diner a hot dog, made to Mr. Sirinakis' specifications at an unidentified meatpacking plant in Pennsylvania.

The business sits across the street from the original location. Of eight restaurants that operated on Main Street 40 years ago, Harry's is the only one still around.

Bessie Amprazis, 87 and long since retired, is the only customer who can command home delivery, Mr. Sirinakis said.

"We are the oldest family-owned restaurant in Carroll County," said the present Harry, who took over the business seven years ago for "a hug, a handshake and a promise not to tamper with a good thing. My parents were confident in me and knew I wanted the business to carry on."

Destiny played a part, too, he said. "After all, they named me Harry," he said.

Like his father and grandfather, Mr. Sirinakis cooks in front of a large window, facing Main Street.

"That way people get an honest look at the food," Mr. Sirinakis said. "I am hands on, here every day and still doing everything."

In the old diner, Mr. Donovan said, the Colts used to sit as far away from the window as possible. That way they could avoid the eyes of their coaches, who often walked down Main Street.

Mr. Sirinakis usually works a 70-hour week. Every few days, it's time to mix another batch of chili. The secret sauce starts from scratch with about 90 pounds of ground beef and ingredients known only to him and his father.

When Mr. Sirinakis' son is old enough, he, too, might learn the secret.

Some customers have been regulars for nearly as many years as the restaurant has been serving.

"I have been coming here at least once a week since I was a kid," said Mike Whitmore, 33, of Woodbine. "It's like home. Everybody knows Harry's."

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