Louie Turco was working on the Bell Aircraft assembly line in the early 1950s, saving up enough money to chase his dream. He wanted to open his own hot-dog stand, in the grand tradition of Ted’s, so he began scouring sites in the area. He finally found his spot, on Grand Island Boulevard at the foot of Sheridan Drive.
But Turco also wanted a gimmick, to lure customers to that end of Sheridan Drive.
“So he came up with the idea of the foot-long hot dog,” his son Angelo said Thursday. “Nobody had them. Coney Island didn’t start serving them until years later.”
Louis Turco, a pioneer in the local fast-food world, died Wednesday night in his Las Vegas home after a brief illness. He was 84.
While other hot-dog purveyors actually were on to the idea of the foot-long before Turco, he played a big role in popularizing it, particularly in Western New York.
The only problem with Turco’s dining concept was that he couldn’t find anyone who made foot-long hot dogs. He found a company, Hy-Grade, to make them, although it took another 30 years until someone started baking the foot-long roll. “You could always tell the old-time customers, because they still ordered their foot-longs on a short roll,” Angelo Turco said.
His father opened the first Louie’s Foot-Long Hot Dogs in 1951, running the business for 58 years before his retirement in 2009.
Louie’s had as many as five sites, but now has two, the original on Grand Island Boulevard and the Elmwood-Hodge site in the Elmwood Village, which sustained extensive damage in a February fire. Angelo Turco said he plans to reopen that site in late June.
Louie Turco had a few secrets to his formula for operating a hot-dog stand. First, the french fries had to be cut by hand, the root beer had to be homemade, and the food had to be cooked to order, not beforehand.
More important was the personal touch.
Working the front counter, Turco often would make a fast friend by greeting a customer with “Hi, cuz.” Some customers didn’t even realize that he called most everyone “cuz”; sometimes, when he wasn’t there, customers would ask another employee to tell Turco that “cuz” had come in.
“So many times you go to a fast-food restaurant and people don’t address you,” he told The Buffalo News in 2005. “They don’t care about you.” Referring to the term “cuz,” he added, “It’s made people feel closer to me. People say, ‘He’s related to Louie.’ ”
That’s a lesson that he passed on to his son Angelo and to other local fast-food entrepreneurs.
“He always said, ‘Ange, you have to get your rest at night, and you have to be at your store,’ ” his son recalled. “If you look at any successful mom-and-pop operation, the owner is always there.”
When Louie Turco no longer could provide the personal service he prided himself on, he retired, in the fall of 2009, at age 81. “Right after we closed for the season, he put his arm around me and said, ‘I’m done,’ ” his son recalled. “He handed me the hot-dog fork and said, ‘It’s all yours.’ ”
Born on June 15, 1928, Turco grew up on Buffalo’s West Side. He honed his sales skills by shining shoes, including those worn by the waiters at Lorenzo’s, an Italian restaurant on Pearl Street, where he soon became a waiter.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, he served briefly as a cook, before being honorably discharged because of poor vision.
Turco later graduated from the Louis Hotel and Culinary Institute in Chicago in 1946, before returning to Buffalo, his family said.
His wife of 54 years, Josephine Argentieri Turco, died in 2003.
Surviving are two daughters, Deborah and Maureen; three sons, Louis Jr., George and Angelo; and two sisters, Marie Botticello and Jean Pagano.
Plans are incomplete for a Mass of Christian Burial.