It was out of the corner of my eye that I noticed him. “Holy crap, that’s the dude from Top Dog,” I thought to myself as I drove up Franklin Street through Downtown Oakland. It was almost like seeing a superhero out of character, like a quasi-celebrity sighting.
Beloved by many for its dedication to quality sausages, Top Dog has grown into a staple of the Bay Area since its inception. With four locations scattered throughout Oakland and Berkeley, by far and away the most notable, nostalgic and revered Top Dog establishment lies at the corner of Durant and Bowditch, conveniently nestled within the geographic sphere of UC Berkeley. One of the definitive go-to’s when it comes to late night food excursions, Top Dog holds a special place in the memories of most folks who came up in or around Berkeley.
Seminal to many Top Dog experiences are the interactions with the employees, but one such employee stands out over the others. Often polarizing and hardly forgettable, Top Dog’s most memorable figure chose to remain nameless for the purposes of our interview. But for the past 23 years, depending on the circumstance, most of the restaurant’s late-night patrons have felt either the charisma or the wrath of the man known most commonly as “The Top Dog Guy.”
When I saw him walking his two dogs as I drove down the street that sunny morning, I had to pull over. “I got to ask him for an interview,” I thought. “At the least show him love for serving me hot dogs for the last decade and a half.” As I hopped out of the car to approach him, I noticed that one of his dogs was relieving itself.
“Hey, my name’s Max,” I said as I got close. My timing couldn’t have been more off, as he crouched down to pick up his dog’s poop. We were both a bit flustered. Somehow, with poop in hand, and me grossly double-parked, we managed to exchange information, and set up a time for coffee. Having spent so many memorable teenage nights outside Top Dog’s doors, it seemed only appropriate to pick the brain of the man behind the counter.
So what’s the anatomy of a Top Dog? You serve a quality product in 13 varieties, but what’s the magic in it? And what’s good with that bun?
The bun is a big part of the success, man. The thing that we shoot for with the bun is finding a bun that is light enough so that it doesn’t overshadow the dog, so your teeth can sink into it but you don’t have to chew the bun. You don’t want to spend most of your time chewing the bun. So instead of sourdough, we use a French Roll, which is much softer and will almost melt in your mouth.
You want to get it so that when you toast it up, it’s light and toasty on the outside, but soft on the inside, so we use sesame seeds on the exterior to allow the top to toast without burning all the way through. The sesame seeds absorb some of the heat from the toasting process.
That’s a process to say the least. How long have you been working at Top Dog?
A long time, man. Long enough to see a kid go from junior high, all the way through college, law school and his profession and is still coming to me for food. And coming in and bringing their folks, when they wanna tell their friends, “Hey this is what Berkeley is like.”
How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel like I’ve done a good job. You know I’ve worked at my job for a really long time…
About how long?
About 23 years now. I started my freshman year of college. I can remember the date because it was four weeks into the semester when I got that letter that I owed the dorms money. So I had to come up with a way to pay them the extra money that my student loans would not. That’s when I started working at Top Dog.
About what year was this?
What was Top Dog like back then? I was three, but was Top Dog in the same location? Was it as popular? What was the environment like when you first started?
It’s funny, but what happened going into the 90’s was that our business at Top Dog probably reached its lowest point. A lot of it had to do with a big mad cow scare in America at the time. It totally rocked the beef world. At the same time there was also a growing vegetarian movement, and being the typical Berkeley hippie campus that is was, a certain percentage of students at least gave lip service to being vegetarian. Every freshman wanted to claim that they were a vegetarian. It was the PC thing to do at the time. So the mid-’90s were kind of slow at Top Dog.
How would you describe working there during that time?
It was good. But around ’97-’98 I fell into something that I refer to as the 7-year itch that Top Dog employees get. At that store, being where it is, we tend to get a lot of college employees, with students working their way through college. For a number of reasons someone will get a job their freshman or sophomore year and will work throughout their whole college career. A chill job with four stores, it’s easy to build a schedule around your classes. The pay, flexibility and freedom is really attractive, particularly to more independent minded individuals.
The first three years, while they’re in college, they love the job and they’re great at the job. Then they graduate with high hopes, having graduated from one of the best public universities in the country. So you graduate and sort of expect the world to be open to you, and it is not.
It dawned on me then that this idea that, just because you go to a good school and come out with your college education, there’s gonna be this $70,000 job just waiting for you, where you’re sitting at an office desk pushing paper–is over. That dream is no longer accessible.
That’s crazy that you saw that then. I graduated in 2009, and a lot of peers, (myself included) still held onto that expectation. That sense of entitlement, where just because you went to a good school you’ll get a good job. To see that coming in 1994 is incredible.
[As an employee] you’re sitting there working, and night after night you’re serving these college students who are filled with so much promise and enthusiasm for the future… and you begin to realize that although there are opportunities out there, there isn’t a plethora of opportunities; the world is just hard. So how do you reconcile that when you’re working every night serving these kids who are so full of hope?
You don’t see the kids who move home, or drop out because times are rough. What you do notice are the kids who graduate and then do come back, and they’re so happy with their professional job. It can wear on people, so I’ve come to refer to it as the seven-year itch, and it’s broken many a Top Dog employee.
What do you like about working at Top Dog?
There’s this perception in America that a truly educated man wouldn’t work with their hands. That somehow that’s beneath them, because an educated person uses their mind… But why is a person that works with their hands any less intelligent than one that sits at a desk?
What ever happened to being a good honest person, who does a good job and is proud of the work they do to make a living? What ever happened to that? There’s nothing wrong with getting dirty and sweaty at work. That’s what showers are for… Whether I’m a garbage man, a carpenter, or a brick layer says nothing about the thoughts that go through my head and what I think of the world…
The one con I have that still persists to this day, is that many people that come into my work see me as some uneducated black man, slaving away at some job. That was the big thing in the negative column, but that’s the only thing.
Really the only thing… That’s pretty good.
Well I mean you’ve got to deal with some assholes every once in a while.
How do you deal with that?
Well an asshole can ruin your night if you let them. But I’m serving 500 people over the course of a night so that doesn’t mean everybody’s an asshole. It’s not like the asshole goes in the negative column because there’s really not that many of them.
On the big football nights you know you’re gonna be busy and it’s easy to let one asshole get to you, and then you become short or irritable with other paying customers. So on those nights I just take a moment to go “Woosah…Woooosahhh.”
What does “Woosah” do?
It’s a meditation term to breathe and relax. I can’t let myself get so worked up about what may happen that I then make it happen.
Yeah man, because to be honest, I’ve seen you go bad on more than a couple people in the 10 or so years I’ve been coming to Top Dog… On some, “Let me just get my Top Dog and get out of this dude’s way…”
I can’t fake it… Any mood I’m in is the mood I’m gonna be in at work. It’s spontaneous, whatever comes off. What I can work on though is what I call “The Hulk.”
You’re familiar with The Hulk. Let me give you an example: it’s a Friday night and I’m kinda stressed because I know it’s gonna be a busy night. I’m doing my thing trying to get the shop up and running. But for a number of reasons I can’t get ahead of the pace of the way things are going because of the flow. Some nights you start off slow and get hit hard at midnight. Other nights, you’re swamped the whole way through.
So what happens is that if I can’t get ahead, I get stressed–and unlike other employees, I’m a perfectionist at my job. I can’t half-ass through anything. When I’m behind that counter my grill has to be stocked, and everything needs to be in the right order. And then sure enough, 11 o’clock comes and someone comes in asking, “Well what does a kielbasa taste like? What do you recommend?” And then the line starts piling up. And then the asshole comes in and think they’re going to make demands, “Where’s my Top Dog?! I ordered before him!” etc. etc. And then that’s when you snap.
“No you fuckin’ didn’t! You think I don’t know what’s going on? Does it look like I’m fuckin’ wingin’ it? Does it look like this is my first fuckin’ day? Shut the fuck up and eat, or you can take your money back and get the hell out. Make a decision right now….!” That’s The Hulk. And he comes out because the tipping point happens and Bruce Banner goes away. Now you’re forced to deal with The Hulk. You asked for him you got him. And the thing with The Hulk, is that you can’t put The Hulk back in a box. Once The Hulk has been released, you have to let it run its course. There is nothing you can do until his hunger has been satiated. Which means it’s gonna be that way for as long as the store is crowded, or until I can step outside and smoke myself a bowl.
It’s funny the green makes the green go away. (Laughs)
I feel it. I feel it.
Have you ever taken into consideration the fact that The Hulk may come out, but then there are people in line that have never been to Top Dog, and their first time interacting with the Top Dog establishment is getting a quality dog from The Hulk?
I very much consider it. Because when you’re done with work and you lay down to go to sleep your mind’s still racing from the night’s work. And what happens is I’ll run through the night in my head. Sometimes it’s actually the people who pissed you off that you remember. But I can honestly say that more times than not, if The Hulk came out, what plays in my mind is that customer who got The Hulk who didn’t deserve it. And I think, “Damn, if only I could’ve calmed down and acted with a little more patience.”
Do other employees deal with annoying customers in a similar way to you?
I’ve taken on maybe eight Padawans in my tenure at Top Dog.
What’s a Padawan?
You familiar with Star Wars?
No but my dad is…
A Padawan is a young Jedi in training. Not to boast, but I am extremely good at my job. I can say with not a lot of humility that I’m the best that’s ever done my job. We’ve had some characters come in for a few years and hold it down, maybe 14 years. But I can say that I am more recognized and more well known than any of those people. I do my job spectacularly.
Does that give you a sense of pride?
It does because I’m someone who believes that anything can be an art. If you are going to do something you can make an art out of it. You can be an artist and be a builder. You can be an artist and make food. Anything that we do can be turned into an art if you do it with pride, skill dedication and true emotion.
When you do something with integrity.
Yes, integrity. Whether you’re building a skyscraper or running a newspaper, it becomes something that connects us when it has another person’s real emotion in it. How can it not?
What do you like to do in your spare time?
After 23 years I don’t have that much spare time. But when I do, I spend it with my dogs, or I’m watching MSNBC. Got a huge crush on Rachel Maddow.
What do you think you’ll remember about your time at Top Dog once you’re done?
I’ve been in places all over, from Chicago to Hawaii, and I’ve had people recognize me from Top Dog. And the nice thing about that is knowing that I made an impression on them–that they remembered the experience. The combination of our service, the environment and the product is like a show of sorts. When I’m behind that counter I’m putting on a show, and it’s nice knowing that the show was appreciated.
This interview was originally written by Max Gibson for Wine & Bowties. For more feature articles visit www.wineandbowties.com