1009 Oaklawn Avenue, Cranston
(401) 943-4990

The classic early '60s Wein-O-Rama sign invites lovers of comfort food to come on in and chow down.

Ready for lunch? Your visit to Rhode Island isn't complete until you've tried the local version of the hot dog, known as hot weiners, bellybusters, destroyers, or gaggers (pronounced "weenuhs, bellybustuhs..." etc.) Hot weiners can be found at numerous locations throughout the state, including any of the New York System locations, but we prefer Wein-O-Rama in Cranston for their dťclassť moniker and large retro-style sign. Their heart-attack-inducing menu is chock full of simple diner fare, from a more innocent time when no one worried about their cholesterol.

Wein-O-Rama was started by Michael Sotirakos, an immigrant from Sparta, Greece, in 1962. In the mid-1950s, he and his wife had come to Rhode Island, where Sotirakos hoped to make a living as an aircraft mechanic. But jobs were scarce and there was zero chance that a Greek-speaking immigrant could get a position at Quonset Naval Base. So he reluctantly took a job as a short-order cook at his aunt and uncle's Original Coney Island restaurant, in Hoyle Square in Providence. There he learned to speak English and cook hot weiners.

Hot weiners consist of a delicious weiner (usually smaller than a standard hot dog and cut, rather than tied off, at the ends), topped with mustard, meat sauce (finely chopped beef with "secret" herbs & spices), chopped onion, and celery salt on a steamed bun. Order a bunch at once and have the dubious pleasure of watching the greasy-aproned grill person prepare them "up d'ahm," meaning that he will line the buns up on his arm, up to the shoulder if necessary, while slopping on the ingredients. Health authorities frown on this practice, but have so far been unable to put a stop to it. After all, it's a tradition!

From his uncle's restaurant Sotirakos moved to the New York System in Arctic, and around 1958 he opened his own restaurant, Mike's Grill, on Park Avenue in Cranston. He was successful enough that he thought he might be able to go national, franchising the hot weiner concept on the model of Burger Chef, a popular fast food chain at the time. In 1962 Sotirakos opened a second location on Oaklawn Avenue and dubbed it Wein-O-Rama, after Cinerama, the short-lived 1950s ultra-wide movie screen format.

During the first year, Sotirakos wasn't sure if he would be able to make it in what was then an undeveloped part of Cranston, so he started simple. Service was strictly drive-up, with four take-out windows at the front of the building. The menu consisted of weiners, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, steak sandwiches, french fries, and drinks. Every item cost just fifteen cents. The franchise idea never came to fruition, but business was so brisk at the new location that in 1963 Sotirakos sold Mike's Grill in order to concentrate all his energies on Wein-O-Rama.

When Sotirakos retired, he passed the business to his sons, George and Ernie, although he continued to oversee operations occasionally. George, at 6' 8", claims to be the tallest short-order cook in the state, and it's probably true. At least, when we spoke with George in March 2001, he told us he's not been challenged yet.

Other than the prices, very little has changed at Wein-O-Rama since it first opened. The breakfast special—2 eggs, home fries, toast—is still a bargain at $1.95 (as of July 2005). The meat sauce is still simmered for at least six hours, and weiners are still prepared the traditional way, "up d'ahm." One concession to the times is a protective PVC sleeve that the Sotirakos's have had manufactured for their use. Not only is it more hygenic, but it protects the grill person's arm from the heat of the sauce.

And just how many weiners can George fit on his arm?

"We only make twelve at a time. We wonít make no more than that. Long ago they used to. Years ago, the old timers... my uncle had a picture in the paper with him with 23. But we donít do no more than twelve Ďcause thatís about all we can fit up to the elbow."

What distinguishes Wein-O-Rama from its many competitors? Is it the sauce?

"I donít consider it a secret. My meat sauce, I use fresh ground beef. And I buy it in Ruggieriís Market. All the New York Systems use a product called edible beef fat. And they buy it from, you know, the person who supplies the weiners, whoever... I think my meat manufacturer carries it. Itís white. Itís... it's not hamburger! I think the quality of the product they use sets me apart. I never consider myself a New York System. Thatís why you donít see the words New York System anywhere."

Original New York Systems, at 424 Smith Street in Providence, lays claim to being the very first hot weinie joint in Rhode Island. Most businesses that followed used the name New York or Coney Island System to cash in on the name recognition, and these names have since become synonymous with hot weiners. As to why they're called New York rather than Rhode Island Systems, well, no one knows.

"The weiners themselves are kind of the same. But, the fact that we sell so many, they move so quickly. Theyíre not sitting on the grill for hours at a time getting burned. More TLC, you know what I mean? We consider ourselves a family restaurant, serving a little better clientele of people than late night crowds."

On a typical Saturday, George says, they sell between five and six hundred weiners. In the forty-plus years Wein-O-Rama has been open, he estimates they've served over seven million. Is it possible to get tired of weiners, we wondered? "I still eat two or three every day," he laughed. "Iím the only one [here] that probably eats them every day."

Weiners are even loved by atheletes. Wein-O-Rama sponsors the Cranston Western Little League, and members of the team often stop in for a lunch of hot dogs and soda before returning to their all-day practice. In 1996 Cranston Western represented the United States at the Little League World Series, where a 13-3 defeat at the hands of Taiwan left them holding the title of second-best Little League team in the world. Not too shabby for a team nourished on weiners.

We asked George if Wein-O-Rama had any vegetarian patrons, and what sort of treatment they might receive.

"Well, they shouldnít come in here!" he replied, laughing. Then he admitted, "You get vegetarians that want a vegetable omelet for breakfast, things like that, yeah. We please everybody. Try to, anyway."

We knew 2002 would be an anniversary for Wein-O-Rama and we asked George if he and his family had any special plans to mark the occasion. "Itíll be our fortieth year in June. We were thinking of doing like a weiner competition. For charity. Pay an entry fee, eat as many weiners as you can, and weíll see who the king of the hot weinie eating competition is. All the money would go to charity." But at the time we spoke there were no firm plans.

And what of the future of Wein-O-Rama? Is there a new generation coming up that wants to carry on the tradition?

"None that wants it, no. My daughter works here. I want them to move on to bigger and better things. Easier things. Years ago I was putting in 70 hours a week. Now we put in 48 on a long week, maybe."

"In another ten years maybe, [we'll] close on our fiftieth anniversary. Iíll be in my fifties by then. It all depends on my younger brother."

We hope that Wein-O-Rama never closes. And who knows, maybe it never will. After all, in 2012, the place will be eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Related Link: Care for a little inside baseball? Read about our friend Dave and his experience with gagguhs.

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