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A rite of summer

Before he started grilling some of WNY’s favorite hot dogs for a living, Dennis McNaney was an industrial arts teacher. But when his position at Maryvale High School was eliminated in 1980, it left him at a crossroads.

Despite months of searching, things weren’t coming together. But Dennis had noticed that Red Top — a Hamburg hot dog stand on the lake — was for sale. He spoke with the owner, Cliff, about taking over. Thirty-seven years later, Dennis still owns the business that’s become a staple in its Southtowns location off Route 5, near Hamburg Town Beach.

Every year, customers help him count down the days to opening.

“We have a sign we put out front that says, ‘10 days to opening day,’ and so on,” said Dennis. “And people always notice and share that information. We’ll see it on Facebook.”

Red Top's famous grilled Wardynski hot dog.

That customer loyalty results from a classic American lineup of charcoal broiled hot dogs, hamburgers, milkshakes and cottage fries made from locally grown potatoes.

“They say most fast food business is 80 percent new customers and 20 percent existing,” said Dennis. “I’d say it’s the opposite here.”

Success is made possible by vendors like Wardynski’s, who supply the hot dogs that are perfected on Red Top’s grills.

“Many of our vendors are family-owned too, so they know what it takes to be successful in this business,” said Lisa Sabers, Dennis’ daughter who is taking over the business this year. “Also, the Town of Hamburg has always been supportive and accountable to our needs.”

Red Top’s relationship with the town comes into play whenever the restaurant experiences a severe weather situation. And there have been several, from blizzards that battered Red Top during its offseason to knee-deep springtime floods.

“In the early ‘80s, the lake levels were higher,” said Dennis. “We would see waves crashing over the roof of Hoak’s restaurant. Every place on the lake would get pelted with sand. That’s what the winter break is for — repairs and refurbishing equipment. The final step is when the food arrives two weeks prior to opening day.”

In recent years, Tim Hortons opened a location across the street from Red Top. This could seem ominous – a billion-dollar, international franchise moving in on an independently owned business. But Dennis sees mostly positives.

“Honestly, it probably helps us because now more people realize we’re here,” Dennis stated. “We’ll see people grab coffee there and then have lunch with us. I tell them, ‘Next time, come here and the coffee’s on me,’ because I know ours is better.”

Not every restaurant knows its customers on a first-name basis, and most don’t hand out 50-cent pieces as change. After 71 years, it’s little touches like these that make Red Top special, for both patrons and those who work there.

That positive energy is something Dennis — who will remain a part of the Red Top team — definitely appreciates. “I have a friend who is a dentist and I always joke with him, saying, ‘How many people are really looking forward to seeing you?’ It’s the exact opposite at Red Top. We all want to be here.

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