The Original Hotdog Shop Grills Memories That Last


words: Tori Novak

photos: Lauren Zawatski

Among a sprawling street of big-name chains peers a neon sign that’s unmistakable. Located at the corner of bustling Forbes Avenue and South Bouquet Street — the same spot it was founded on in the summer of 1960 — the Original Hot Dog Shop has become synonymous with the neighborhood of Oakland.

One step inside reveals chaos so odd it feels like Black Friday. There’s nothing laid back about “The O.” A tall man flips what appears to be hundreds of hot dogs on a griddle that could feed an army. The clientele couldn’t be anymore varied: from businessmen and doctors on their breaks to students laden in Pitt-adorned sweatshirts and T-shirts — sometimes sober, sometimes not.

Considering the amount of grease they go through in a day, it’s a good thing Dr. Thomas Starzl pioneered the heart transplant at UPMC Montifiore, a block from the hot dog shop. You’ll more than likely need one after consuming one of The O’s calorie-stuffed meals.

Colorful menus greet customers.

Colorful menus greet customers.

Founder Sydney “Syd” Simon’s story is that of many Pittsburgh business owners. Simon was the son of two hardworking immigrants who settled in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  He began his food service journey at a deli in Highland Park, and was devastated when it closed.

In the sizzling hot summer of 1960 — the same year the Pirates won the World Series against the New York Yankees — he saw an opportunity. With his brother, Moe, along for the ride, he began selling hot dogs outside of Forbes Field. Hot dogs, fries and a cigar box for a cash register were all the brothers had to their name. Little did they know, their tiny business would eventually become an Oakland staple.

Megan Lange is a marketing director in New York City by day and a food blogger by night. While these days she reviews high-end cuisine, Lange got her start as a student at the University of Pittsburgh and a regular customer at The O.

“I don’t remember 90 percent of my visits to The O, but I think that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Lange says. “Those great times when you’ve been exhausted from studying for finals and you’re stuck in the twilight zone, or when you’ve had too much to drink and you’re just dying for a hot dog.”

Brad Gockley, 27, rolls up the sleeves of his white button down shirt as though he’s about to break a sweat. The giant hot dog sitting before him is topped with onions, relish and a heaping of Heinz ketchup.

“This isn’t the kind of outfit you eat a hot dog in, but I’d make any exception for The O,” Gockley says with grave sincerity.

Wall decorations tell stories from years past.

Wall decorations tell stories from years past.

Like Lange, Gockley was also introduced to The O as a student at the University of Pittsburgh. His first visit is one he’ll never forget.

“We went to The O after a night of partying with my fraternity and decided to have a hot dog eating contest,” he recalls. “I blew all my money on hot dogs, literally all $80 I had to my name”

But what keeps customers — including Bruce Springsteen when he’s in town — coming back for more? For many, it’s simply nostalgia.

Joe Pansuiak was born at UPMC Presbyterian hospital, only a stone’s throw away from his parent’s home on South Bouquet. Later in life he purchased a blue house in South Oakland, right next door to his parents. He’s made countless memories in the neighborhood, but there’s one place that always means home to him: The O.

“My father used to take us to The O for hot dogs before the Pirate games. I grew up with The O and it was always a staple in my life,” Pansuiak says. “I took my first date there after a movie. I was nervous as could be, couldn’t even think straight with this pretty girl in front of me, smiling over her hot dog and that giant basket of fries.”

The O’s famous neon signs light the way.

The O’s famous neon signs light the way.

He hopes to pass on the tradition to his 4-year-old niece. The little girl’s blonde pigtails bounce as she skips to pick up her very own O dog.

Current owner Terry Campasano, the daughter of Simon and his wife Essie, plans to continue this sense of nostalgia for years to come. She grew up at the family owned business and is passing the legacy on to her children.

“They’ve been saying this place would shut down every year since I can remember, but we just keep going,” Campasano says.

Now in her 60s, Campasano has been working the front lines of The O since her early teenage years. She’s seen the height of Pitt Football and the hard times of sporadic Oakland crime, but remains a part of a dwindling constant for the perpetually changing neighborhood.

No matter what you call it — The Dirty O, The O, Essie’s Original Hot Dog shop — one thing remains true. This Oakland powerhouse will continue to provide great hot dogs and iconic memories for years to come.