I believe there’s a story in everything, and that’s part of the reason I love hot dogs.

And if you happened to walk past Waters Cafe between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. yesterday, you’d have found many stories there. Over the course of five and a half hours, the cafe gave out 730 free hot dogs to hungry customers in honor of National Hot Dog Day.

Some people heard about the free hot dogs on the news. Others found out through Facebook and Instagram. Still others, like Franklyn Hines, just happened to be passing by and decided they needed to check it out. “I saw all the commotion going on out here, the long line, everybody walking out with hot dogs,” he said. “We were like man, we gotta try some of these hot dogs.”

Others didn’t even realize there were free hot dogs until they had made it partway through the line, which extended out the door for most of the day. “This is my first time here, and I had no idea about the hot dogs. But I’m into the free hot dog idea,” said Tom K, who sat at a corner table with his friend, Tom Kohler. Together, the two call themselves TK 1 and TK 2.

Regardless of how they all got there, an air of excitement wove its way through the cafe customers yesterday. The prospect of free food left conversations and smiles a little more unrestrained than a normal day.

“It’s hot dog day! Here we go again,” said Mary Newton, who turned 73 years old just a few days ago on July 11th, and grinned when she talked about hot dogs.

“I thought it was amazing, seeing a bunch of families coming in, and just feeding all of them. People were ordering, like, 12 hot dogs,” said Asher Tucker, an employee at Waters Cafe. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, and working it kind of made it better, being on the other side of it. Being able to provide for the community.”

Customers fill Waters Cafe to get their free hot dogs.
Customers fill Waters Cafe to get their free hot dogs. Credit: Caelen McQuilkin/The Current GA

Charles Holmes, another customer that day, had read up on the cafe’s rules thoroughly. He knew that every customer could get up to three free hot dogs, and planned to ask for all three. “I’m a hot dog fan. So I go, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’,” he said.

Holmes said that hot dogs are also somewhat sentimental for him. “That was mama’s favorite food, and that was mine,” he said. “I just grew up with hot dogs.”

The way I see it, hot dogs are just common enough and just ridiculous enough that people always have some memories and stories associated with them. Indeed, they were plentiful at the cafe yesterday.

Regina, a Waters Cafe employee, remembered the time she and her family stopped at a gas station on a road trip and she bought a hot dog so delicious she decided to go back to buy a second one. But by the time she had purchased it, her family had accidentally left her behind at the gas station, oblivious to the fact that she wasn’t in the car. “You know, I don’t think I would have been sad if would’ve I got left,” she said. “Because those hot dogs are really good.”

The origin of free hot dog day at Waters Cafe has a story of its own, too. Cafe owner Clinton Edminster recently happened across an extremely expensive hot dog rolling machine at the thrift store and purchased it for around $2,000 less than its original price. “That is a pretty damn nice hot dog roller. It’s very high quality,” he said. “[I] purchased that, and was like ‘oh my god … wow, we’re really gonna do hot dogs. This is gonna be incredible.’”

Waters Cafe owner Clinton Edminster found this high-quality hot dog roller at a thrift store, part of the inspiration for his cafe's free hot dog day.
This hot dog roller, part of the inspiration for his cafe’s free hot dog day, cooked over 700 hot dogs for the cafe’s free hot dog event. Credit: Caelen McQuilkin/The Current GA

Tom Kohler, side by side with Tom K, recounted his first conscious memory of hot dogs. Growing up in Savannah, his neighborhood association would often organize oyster roasts. There would always be hot dogs for the kids, though, because as Kohler put it, “children aren’t smart enough yet to know that oysters are good.”

“For the first nine years of my life, I probably let some of the oysters in the world pass by me,” he said. “Instead, I ate the hot dogs.”

When people reflected my questions about stories back to me — “why are you writing this story?” one person laughingly asked — I had to stop and think for a second. I remember grilled hot dogs at softball games as a kid, and my dad heating them up for me in the microwave to eat outside on hot summer days.

Mostly, I associate hot dogs with gatherings of people, conversations over paper plates and ketchup, everyone so excited to get their words and jokes in that we’d all end up talking at the same time.

Kohler also shared his memory of eating hot dogs at Tanner’s, which he says was once the most famous hot dog store in Savannah. There were no tables or chairs in the store, only one long counter that people stood at. “You’d just stand there, and look at the wall,” he said. “Eat your hot dog, and be happy. And be really happy.” 

Others commented on the ever-lasting debate: are hot dogs sandwiches? “I mean, I get it. But I think a hot dog has to be a sandwich. I would never eat a hot dog without a bun, which makes it a sandwich,” said Tom K. In addition to “Hot Dogs Attract Varied Crowd” and “Mystery Meat, Mystery Meet Up,” Kohler recommended that I title this piece “The Bun Matters.”

Stories emerged on the other side of the hot dog roller, too. “You don’t realize how much 700 hot dogs is until you’ve been handing them out all day,” said Regina. Earlier in the day, she made up a song that she periodically sang to her coworker Brenda. Sung in a melodic tune, the lyrics go: “Hot dog, hot dog! Relish, relish! Chili, chili! Queso, queso!”

Brenda, meanwhile, said she couldn’t quite estimate how many total hot dogs she ate throughout the day. “There were a lot that were just broken, or left there. So I was eating them … I can’t tell you how many hot dogs I ate,” she said. “I don’t think I’m eating dinner. It was a lot. I was like ‘oh, snap.’ Four, maybe.”

In the end, Edminster said the day “went fantastically well.” He started the process of planning by seeking input from staff, because he knew that giving out free hot dogs would create an unusually busy and difficult day for them. “Everybody seemed totally into it,” he said. Hot dog day ended up being an event that all the staff went into together, like a team.

Edminster did not publicly disclose where he purchased the hot dogs from. “I think what’s in a hot dog is a secret, and where you got them should also be a secret,” he said.

But he did share that it was difficult to decide how many hot dogs to purchase. “100 hot dogs? 500 hot dogs? 10,000 hot dogs? I mean, like, how many hot dogs?” he said. “But we kind of nailed it.” In the end, the cafe gave away almost all of their hot dogs, left with only one half pack.

That’s probably for the best, Edminster said. The Waters Cafe staff have had enough hot dogs, at least for the time being.

“Do I like hot dogs? I love hot dogs. But after today, I’m gonna have to take a little break,” said Tucker.

Caelen McQuilkin is a student at Amherst College from Lee Vining, California. She has worked as a managing news editor and managing features editor for The Amherst Student, the student newspaper for Amherst...