Rain or shine, the Hot Dog Dude is there for commuters at Santa Clara’s Great America Amtrak station, 5099 Stars and Stripes Drive, across from Levi’s Stadium.
Howard Gibbons, dubbed the Hot Dog Dude by students at Santa Clara University, sets up his mobile food cart Monday through Friday in time for the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. commuters. He’s also there on stadium event days.
It hailed on a windy afternoon in February as Gibbons, a native of San Jose, served hot dogs, polish sausages and hot links.
“It’s a sad day when he’s not here,” said customer Keith Jordon, headed home to Modesto on Amtrak.
“I’m here every day. This is my go-to place,” said Nora Ramos, eating a hot dog at the end of her workday at Levi’s Stadium. “They’re the best dogs. Delicious. I love them. Very good quality.
“You come, eat, get on the train two hours to Stockton. By the time you get home, it’s too late to make dinner,” Ramos explained, adding that Gibbons “is friendly with the customers. He communicates with us.”
“I eat a lot of hot dogs,” said Gibbons. “The best way to tell if a hot dog is good is to eat it plain. If it’s good, just imagine when you heap it up.”
The “Street Dog” with grilled onions and peppers and the “Kraut Dog” with pastrami are big sellers. Standard relishes include sweet onions, vine-ripened tomatoes and sauerkraut from Ohio.
Gibbons had other jobs, from owning a courier company to operating a catering truck with a full kitchen. With the opening of Levi’s Stadium in 2014, his catering truck was forced out.
“To stay in business at Amtrak, I had to downsize to a hot dog cart and get permitted [for that location],” said Gibbons, who also does private and community events such as Santa Clara’s Parade of Champions, street dances and Central Park events. Events are the mainstay of his business.
Gibbons said that being successful in the hot dog business requires attention to food safety and proper prep.
“You can’t make people sick!” he said.
Unlicensed vendors without health permits cut down on his business on event days at Levi’s Stadium. They illegally park their red carts just outside the stadium exits, catching exiting fans before they get to Gibbon’s cart on the other side of the road, where he is licensed to operate. They hide in the bushes if security by chance shows up.
German immigrants to New York City in the late 1800s introduced sausages to America. They sold their “dachshund sausages,” which look like the body of a German Dachshund, from street carts. That’s how the name “hot dogs” caught on.
Immigrants from Frankfurt called their pork sausages frankfurters, shortened to franks. In Vienna (Wien in German), Austria, beef was added to the sausages, and they, like the people of Vienna, were called Wieners. The hot dog bun was an innovation in America.
“The interesting thing about being a hot dog vendor is the people that you meet,” said Gibbons, who recalls meeting former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and soap opera stars.
“Everyone has a story, and I do, too,” he said. “You’re reading it.”