Larry Dawson is still passionate about the sauce his mom created as a topping for hot dogs, and with good reason.
The meaty sauce from the old Dawson's Root Beer stand that was a fixture at South Anthony and Rudisill boulevards for nearly half a century is one of those almost mythical Fort Wayne foods.
Since the stand closed for good in the early 2000s, fans of the dogs have chased the sauce wherever it has popped up. Many people have claimed to have the recipe, and many more folks than you might think have actually owned a version of the recipe.
And even though it has been nearly 20 years since the hot dog sauce was served out of the little round stand outside Southern Heights Baptist Church, and more than 40 years since a Dawson served it there, securing the recipe's authenticity and protecting it is still foremost on Larry Dawson's mind.
At 73 and having long since left Fort Wayne – he moved to Glendale, Illinois, in 1997 – Dawson has checked in on, and sometimes squabbled with, those who claimed to have the recipe. His older brother, Jim, has kept tabs on it to a lesser degree, as he hasn't called Fort Wayne home since the 1960s and now lives in Georgia.
“Every time I would get on a plane and talk to someone and they heard I was from Fort Wayne, they'd ask if I was one of the Dawsons from the root beer stand,” Jim Dawson said.
The brothers – Larry in particular, who has been much more active in protecting his family's legacy over the years – have reached a point in their lives where they are kind of done worrying about their family's hot dog and root beer legacy. They just want it to be a fixture in the Summit City forever.
“I would like to have it carried on in Fort Wayne because it was such a well-known name,” Larry said as he wiped a tear away. “Most people you talk to say Dawson's hot dogs were the best.”
So the Dawsons are ready to share that sacred recipe with everyone here.
“I feel Fort Wayne has been good to us,” Larry said. “I just want to give it back to the city. It belongs here.”
Jim echoes those sentiments.
“I love Fort Wayne,” he said. “It was a great place to be growing up.”
Hot dog history
Finding out when the little stand first opened is nearly impossible. According to Larry, it was first owned by a man who owned a gas station and grocery store across the street. He started it up as a way for his sons to earn money for college in the summer.
None of the owners, however, actually owned the building. The building and the property it sat on was owned by the church.
The late James Dawson Jr. and his wife, Virginia, bought the business in 1951, but they, and the three owners who followed, never had a lease or rent to pay. They just had to donate some of their profits – 7 to 10 percent, depending on who you ask – to the church.
“That was a lot of money when you were pulling in $3,000 a week there,” said Tim Replogle, whose family took over from the Dawsons in 1977.
As the first post-Dawson owner, Karl Replogle paid $15,000, Larry Dawson said, for the business and the sauce recipe. He ran it with his sons Danny and Tim, who some might know better now as his wrestling alter ego, Dick the Bruiser Jr.
They owned it through the summer season of 1991, when they sold it to Lori Koble and her then-husband, Scott Collier. The couple ran it until 1997 before moving to Decatur to open Arnold's Drive-in, selling the stand to its final owner, Herb Carr, who renamed it the Carr Hop.
With so many having claims to the recipe, it is no wonder there is debate as to whether the different versions were the same.
The recipe started getting spread out by Tim Replogle. After selling to the Colliers, he started selling Dawson's dogs out of a trailer in the area of Lima and Washington Center roads.
He eventually sold that trailer and sold the recipe again to Chrissy and Rick Davis, who ran the trailer further north on Lima for a while before opening Dawson's Famous Coney Dogs in a strip mall near Lima and Dupont roads in 2005.
Larry Dawson had the name of his family's restaurant trademarked eventually, but gave up on pursuing any legal action against anyone who used it.
“I left Fort Wayne and figured it wasn't going to hurt me,” Larry said. “My lawyer said it was probably not worth suing over, so I basically gave up on the Dawson's name.”
The Davises closed their restaurant on Lima Road in 2014, and a store they started in Kendallville closed around the same time. They sold hot dogs out of a trailer for a while in Kendallville before giving it up for good.
The couple's sons, Clint and Chance, however, are in the process of giving the hot dog business another try and hope to start selling them again soon.
Woodie Klepfer also says he has the recipe. He bought it from – you guessed it – Tim Replogle for his Covington Coneys stand on Covington Road and West Jefferson Boulevard in 2010, and is still selling them there. His business is for sale, however, and his version of the recipe will go to the new owner if one comes along.
Looking at Virginia Dawson's recipe is like looking back in time. Not only is it a complex, heavily involved recipe, but it has ingredients that you wouldn't even know how to find these days.
Koble, who now owns the Who Cut The Cheese? food truck, was flummoxed as to what beef suet was when she first started making it.
“It took five pounds of suet,” she said of the raw hard fat. “I had to go find that. But I followed that recipe exactly because there was nothing you would want to change.”
Klepfer said he doesn't use suet in his version. Even if it did, beef suet wouldn't even be exact enough, according to Larry Dawson.
“Mom only used kidney suet,” he said. “She would go to all these butcher shops just to get the fat from the kidneys.”
Good luck finding kidney suet these days.
Other interesting inexact oddities that make the recipe pretty much impossible to perfectly replicate:
• Five heaping white coffee cups of chili powder. “It's not a standard cup, but the large white cup that went with the business,” it states. It also called for a “handful” of salt.
• Four heaping tablespoons of “chili seasoning,” but no mention of which brand. Also, it states that tablespoons aren't “the kind you buy on a ring. It is the large size like you use at home.” It is a good bet that seasoning was Mexene brand, which has been around since 1906 and is still sold everywhere today.
• Simon Brothers hamburger crumbles, a meat substitute made in South Bend, was used as filler. The company that made it and the plant no longer exist. More ground beef can be added instead, and the recipe notes that.
• Two cans of “pizza sauce.” Check your grocery shelf and see how many variations you can find. And it doesn't say how big a can is. A can of ketchup is also used but, again, no size or brand mentioned for that can. Most likely it means No. 10 restaurant cans, which hold about 12 cups.
• Water was to be added to thin the sauce out in the final steps. “You can add water until two inches from the top,” the recipe states. Of course, there is no mention of how big the pan is other than “you can use the pans that went with the business.”
Tim Replogle stands behind his sauce and the recipes he sold, and said any changes to the recipe over the years were not made by him.
“Virginia Dawson trained me how to make the sauce and I made every batch of sauce as Virginia made it,” he said of his days running the stand. “Nobody touched the sauce but me.
“It was a chili sauce more than a Coney sauce. A thicker chili sauce, not a runny sauce. It was a true chili dog.”
Larry Dawson said the sauce was closer to brown than bright red, which many of the variations he tried that followed were.
Chrissy Davis remembers how hard it was to follow the recipe she used. She also added that Rick Davis had tried Klepfer's sauce and thought it was pretty close to the sauce they made. But, of course, it was not exactly like theirs.
“It is an expensive recipe,” Chrissy Davis said. “There are a lot of things that go in it, there are a lot of spices that go in it. If you forget to put enough salt in it – any ingredient in it – you can tell it is off.”
For the die-hard fans of Dawson's, and especially for Larry and Jim, no sauce will stack up to the one made by Virginia, who died in 1991.
That's just the way it goes with recipes, whether from your favorite hot dog stand or from your grandmother. They always tasted better when they made them, and you look back on those good old days.
A different time
One of Larry's favorite memories of those good old days was how his mom made that sauce. And it was made in a way that health officials would never let fly today.
That little round stand didn't have room enough to make big vats of the sauce, let alone store it during the busy summers.
“We made two 40-pound pans at a time in our kitchen on Barr Street,” Larry Dawson recalled. “We would cook 24 hours one day in the winter and put the sauce into gallon jugs. Each jug was about seven pounds.”
Those jugs – empty salad dressing containers that other restaurants in the city were kind enough to keep and give to the Dawsons – were put in a freezer until the spring when the stand opened.
“We must have had six freezers running there on Barr Street to hold all of it,” Larry said.
Larry giggles now thinking about how they skirted the rules cooking at home back then, something the health department would never approve of today. His parents' kitchen was never inspected or approved.
“I don't know how we got away with making it that way for 26 years,” he said. “We never paid anyone off, I know that for sure.”
Jim Dawson gets emotional when he thinks of those days of making sauce in the kitchen and marvels at how hard his mom and dad worked to make the stand a success.
“Everybody knows our name because of that lady who wore the white sweater and ran the root beer stand,” said Jim, a retired teacher. “I learned everything I know from them – how to have a good work ethic and that you had to work to make a buck.”
The little round building where it all started is history. It was demolished last year to make way for a Dollar General store.
But the memories of those dogs live on with those who loved them and still pine for them today. And as they get on in years, the Dawson brothers don't want those memories to die. That is why they are sharing the recipe.
“I appreciate the people – the kids – who worked for mom at the stand,” Larry said, holding back even more tears. “And I would like to thank all of the people who bought off of Mom and Dad and helped make them so successful.”
Virginia Dawson's original hot dog sauce recipe made more than 60 gallons of sauce, to be frozen. The meat and onions were cooked in two large pans, which were then divided to make eight pans of sauce.
The following recipe would produce one of those eight pans, which netted a little more than 8 gallons, so a 10-gallon pan at least will be required, unless you divide it down even more for making at home.
10 pounds of lean ground beef (or 5 of ground beef and 5 of imitation meat crumbles)
21/2 pounds beef suet
21/2 pounds chopped onions
1 heaping cup paprika
5 heaping cups chili powder
4 heaping tablespoons chili seasoning
3 heaping tablespoons pickling spice
2 heaping tablespoons black pepper
2 heaping tablespoons crushed red chiles
3 heaping tablespoons cumin
1 heaping teaspoon red pepper
2 cans pizza sauce
1 can ketchup
Thickener: Mix enough flour into 2 gallons of water to make it nearly a soft dough but still pourable.
Add beef, suet and onions into large pan – big enough so you still have room – with a handful of salt. Pour 2 gallons of water into pan and break up meat until fine.
Turn on heat and continue stirring meat as it cooks to prevent it from burning.
Remove from heat, add spices, ketchup and pizza sauce, and slowly incorporate thickening mixture. Place back on heat and add water as needed to achieve proper consistency. It should cling to a spoon well enough to hardly drop off. After cooling, you can divide sauce into eight 1-gallon containers for freezing.