Relishing the Return of Lucky Dogs

Lucky Dogs, the ubiquitous hot-dog stands, have returned to New Orleans. They were missing for six months after Hurricane Katrina, but they've made it back in time for Mardi Gras.

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DON GONYEA, host:

In New Orleans the vendors of the venerable frankfurter known as the Lucky Dog were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, just like everybody else in the Crescent City.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, they recently returned just in time for Mardi Gras.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Since 1948, as predictably as morning mass and the Mississippi River ferry, men and women in candy-striped shirts have pushed giant hot dogs through the streets of the French Quarter.

Unidentified Man: It's quite a load. It'll make you huff and puff.

BURNETT: Lucky Dog carts have grown over time. They now feature hot and cold running water and carry 30 dozen hot dogs. But the vendors haven't changed that much. It's always been ready work for people down on their luck. In 1993, a Californian named Terry Reno, after five years in the Army and four failed marriages, found himself on a freight train bound for New Orleans.

Mr. TERRY RENO (Lucky Dog Vendor): Got off here, was roaming around the street. I saw a hot dog cart. So I asked the guy, he said come down to the shop. I went down to the shop and got a cart about two days later.

BURNETT: He's been selling them ever since. The vendor keeps 16 percent of what he sells. Reno does well enough that his boss gave him one of the best corners in the Quarter, Toulouse and Bourbon.

Mr. RENO: We're almost there.

BURNETT: It's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. This year, half of the city is a dead zone, but the French Quarter is hopping and its characters are out in force. A man wearing a Coast Guard cap the people know as Crazy Johnny, leans against a wall with a can of beer in his hand and watches the hot dog wagon lumber past.

CRAZY JOHNNY (New Orleans Resident): Why are those hot dogs so lucky? I said, if you eat one, you might get lucky?

BURNETT: After the city flooded, Terry Reno locked up his apartment and fled to Florida. But he missed New Orleans and he missed his job. When his manager told him the Lucky Dog building was repaired and the carts were cleaned and ready to go, Reno got on his bicycle and pedaled 340 miles.

Mr. RENO (Floridian): Yeah, I rode from Pensacola to Hammond to where was it, oh, Baton Rouge, and then back down here.

BURNETT: The Lucky Dog carts rolled back into the French Quarter eleven days ago, the owner hoping to make up for the six long months the business was closed.

Margi Gras is traditionally their busiest period.

Mr. RENO: Yep, it's starting already.

BURNETT: Reno's corner is packed with revelers, their necks layered with beads and many of them holding day-glo green cups filled with something called a hand grenade, which bills itself as New Orleans' most powerful drink. It's never advisable to drink on an empty stomach.

Mr. RENO: Can I help you? Have a hot dog, sir? Chili, onions, relish, mustard, ketchup.

BURNETT: Reno's hands are flying, building a Lucky Dog every 20 seconds.

Mr. RENO: $4.75 please.

BURNETT: He expects to gross $2,000 dollars tonight, though he says that's not the main reason he likes what he does.

Mr. RENO: I met a couple, probably three years ago, they actually offered to send me money and stuff after Hurricane Katrina. I guess they thought I might have needed help. I didn't, but it was real nice.

BURNETT: There's no time for small talk. Customers are backing up, and they're hungry.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

CRAZY JOHNNY: You guys need a hot dog on Bourbon Street, some Lucky Dogs. If I run into this dude again I'll stop and tell you whether it was lucky or not. You have a good one.

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