Thomas Connors worked the beat downtown for the Buffalo Police Department when he decided in 1944 to open Connors hot dog stand on Old Lakeshore Road. His only daughter Karen (Connors) Erickson is a Mount Mercy girl who grew up in South Buffalo, married and moved to Angola-on-the-Lake to raise eight children in a house next to the stand.
Erickson, 67, is a former member of the Evans Town Board. Each day she works lunch at Connors, which draws people to the Lake Erie shore for homegrown french fries, hand-cut pickles and no-frills Wardynski hot dogs. The stand could be called the flagship for a compound of homes owned by Erickson, her brothers and several other family members.
She said the stand and the memories it holds have become a way of life for her and her family members who gather there from around the country for a Fourth of July vacation. This year they numbered 76.
People Talk: How old were you when you started working at the stand?
Karen Erickson: Seven. My job was to collect pop bottles from the tables. My job was also to ice the pop in the coolers and keep it cold. We didn’t have the kind of refrigeration we had today. I came to work at 3 o’clock Sundays. When I was 14, I worked every day with Thursdays off.
PT: How often do you work now?
KE: I work lunch every day from when we open for the season in March to mid-September. Sundays I work the grill all day. My brother says I talk people’s food cold. My nephew cooks hot dogs. He’s always here. My oldest brother does the banking. My other brother is here every morning at 7:30 to clean the bathrooms and check the machinery. I do payroll, scheduling and keep the books. I’ll be in my yard and I’ll look to see how long the line is. If it’s too long I’ll run up here.
PT: Is this a lucrative business?
KE: The kids put themselves through college with the money they earned here. The profits from the business didn’t put them through; we were paying our own family members, not a lot of outsiders. Today we have 28 employees and they’re all kids. With the exception of my nephew, the oldest person who works here is probably 22 years old – from sophomores in high school to seniors in college.
PT: What makes Connors special?
KE: Our longevity, so everybody has good memories. They grew up here. We’re a tradition. Grandparents who met here bring their grandchildren for a hot dog. Thurman Thomas normally every year comes. Jimmy Molloy came here a lot. He was the speaker of the House of Representatives. Former Congressman Jack Quinn comes every Fourth of July for a milkshake because he and his wife’s first date was here on the Fourth.
PT: How has your business changed over the years?
KE: Today, people eat quick food all the time so they come here for dinner. Years ago people left the bars and ate. Today they eat in the bars. Years ago our big business was nights. We’d stay open to 3 in the morning every night. Now it’s only on weekends. A lot of our night business is ice cream.
PT: How do you build the perfect hot dog?
KE: We serve just a basic hot dog. Kids like it. Old people like it. We don’t put the condiments on it. You do. People like that. Our food is consistent. We’ve never cheapened our product. We started with Wardynskis in 1944, and we use homegrown Chiavetta’s potatoes, but not until August. We use whatever potato the market has until we can get homegrowns. Then I can tell customers that the potatoes they are eating were in the ground this morning, that’s how fresh they are.
PT: Do you eat hot dogs?
KE: Every day for lunch. I’ll eat hotdogs anywhere. I’m not a hot dog snob. When my brother and I go to Florida for the month of February – both our spouses have died – we bring down with us 25 pounds of hotdogs because the last week we have a big hot dog party. There are a load of South Buffalo people in Indian Shores, Fla. By word of mouth they know we’re going to have a party.
PT: Did you know that from Memorial Day to Labor Day Americans on average eat 818 hot dogs a second?
KE: I find that amazing. There’s such a push on health and nutrition that people are always wanting to hammer foods like the hot dog. My father lived until 85, and I’m never sick a day.
PT: Life by the water must be refreshing.
KE: What makes it different is that I can drive from here to church and not see a car. I go to the grocery store and pass two cars. You’re never in traffic. So once you get off of that Skyway and you start going through Hamburg into Evans, there’s a real calming effect. Everything is fresh.
PT: What’s the state of the cottage industry?
KE: Years ago it was probably 30 percent residential; 70 percent cottages. Now it’s more like 80 percent residential, 20 percent cottages – if that much. More of the cottages have been converted to year-round homes – because of the economy and taxes.
PT: You were on the Evans Town Board for 12 years from 1998 to 2010. Why did you enter politics?
KE: I think I had a brain freeze. We’ve always been community-minded and because I didn’t work in the winter I thought it would be something I could handle. It was a wonderful 12 years, but Kevin Gaughan chose Evans to start downsizing. We went from five seats to three. My brother was president of the school board for years.
PT: Tell me about your family.
KE: One of my brothers moved to Washington. Another brother died when he was 16 in a car accident, but my other two brothers eventually built houses here. Between us we have 20 children, and half of them went to St. Bonaventure. Our 20 children have had 35 children.
I’ll tell you a cute story. There was a concert at Mickey Rats a couple of weeks ago, and we parked cars in our lot. We don’t have a lot of help normally on a Thursday, so the person taking the money was my oldest niece. She’s 50 and here for the summer with her kids from Virginia. The second person was my nephew, her youngest brother who teaches at Lake Shore. My brother was directing traffic and my two nephews were in the lot parking the cars. I just saw the Von Trapp singers in the “Sound of Music” at Artpark, and now we had the Connors parkers.