Where it all started. Or so they say...
[Please see below for updates—ed.]
Original New York System claims to be the very first Rhode Island hot wiener place, ever. 1927 is the year they began purveying the little dogs. But Sparky's Coney Island System over in East Providence also claims the distinction, and traces their pedigree back to 1915. We've so far been unable to find a published reference to either business prior to 1931, so we believe the question of which came first remains open.
According to former Original New York System owner Gus Pappas, when the restaurant was opened by his grandfather, Augustus ("Gust"), an immigrant from Greece, it was simply called New York System. Gust chose the name as an homage to New York City, and if you can imagine yourself as an immigrant seeing the city for the first time, having grown up in a small Greek village, you can understand why. Because the business was successful, and the name was never trademarked, imitators opened their own "New York Systems" left and right. Tiles installed on the floor of the store in 1955 that spell out "ONYS" are evidence of Gust's early attempts to establish his hot wiener primacy. It wasn't until the early to mid-1980s that the business was incorporated and "Original" was added to the official name.
The 1931 volume of the Providence City Directory contains the earliest reference we've found to the phrase "New York System." The location was 424 Smith Street, the same site where they can be found today, so at the very least ONYS is the oldest Rhode Island hot wiener joint continuously operated at the same address. Incidentally, the first use of the word "system" that we could find was for an eatery called New England System, located at 29 Eddy Street in 1924.
When the store first opened the only furnishings were eight school chairs with armrests. Gust died suddenly in 1936 ("What happened was, he had tonsillitis," grandson Gus told us. "He didn't go into surgery because he was busy and the infection in his tonsils actually killed him. Died of tonsilitis. Fifty years old. He left here and he got a heart attack, I guess, right in front of Lasalle. He pulled the car over and the policeman found him with his keys in his hand like this slumped over"), and his sons, Ernie and Anthony, were too young to work yet, so the restaurant was run by Gust's cousin, Nicholas, until 1947 when Ernie took over. Ernie's son, Gus, then stepped into the driver's seat in 1970, although Ernie kept a hand in until he retired to Florida in the 2000s. Unfortunately, Gus and his wife never had children, so there was no next generation of Pappases to hand the business off to when Gus himself retired in 2013.
The most important asset of any hot wiener place is its secret sauce, and Original New York System's has a longer and somewhat better-documented pedigree than most (although not devoid of discrepencies). Nicholas Pappas was able to take over the reins at ONYS so ably because he'd run his own hot wiener joint, Nick's Coney Island, in Fall River, Massachusetts, since 1920. He got Gust started in the business and gave him the sauce recipe. According to Nick's Coney Island website, nicksconeysauce.com, Nicholas Pappas acquired the recipe while working for a hot dog vendor in Philadelphia.
In a 1987 Providence Journal article Ernie Pappas stated that Nick Pappas "brought the sauce in from Texas. They had relations in Texas." As if backing up his claim of a Texas origin, Ernie refered to the condiment as a "chili sauce," a term you hardly ever hear in Rhode Island these days in connection with hot wiener sauce. "This is a very mild sauce," said Ernie, "not hot."
It's remarks like these that make us wonder if Rhode Island hot wiener sauce might be a variation of chili con carne (without the chilis), adapted for use as a condiment. Chili is believed to have come out of Mexico in the 1880s and spread through Texas to the rest of the country. This would also explain why many wiener places elsewhere in the country have Texas or Dallas in their name, such as Dallas Hot Wieners in Kingston, New York, and Hot Grill Texas Weiners in Clifton, New Jersey.
So aren't the wieners themselves important? Of course they are. Most hot wiener joints get their wieners from Little Rhody Provisions in Johnston, and ONYS is no exception. However, they also source from the Marcello Sausage Company in Cranston. Marcello, Gus Pappas told us, is the direct descendent of a company called Meinel's, which was the originator of the wiener. Additionally, ONYS differentiates itself from Olneyville New York System (with which there is a family connection) by using a skinless wiener.
Original New York System has seen its share of famous faces. In the 1950s and '60s the Celebrity Club was nearby, and performers like jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and cornetist Bobby Hacket (a Providence native) would come by after their gigs. Armstrong once led an impromtu late-night jam session in the restaurant. Another time a purple Cadillac pulled up to the System and deposited boxer Sugar Ray Robinson with "a girl on each arm." William Burroughs, Jay Leno, Judge Judy, Guy Fieri... even Liberace stopped in once.
There was even at least one famous guy who worked there—David Byrne of Talking Heads. Local raconteur Rudy Cheeks recalled in a 1987 Providence Journal article:
At the time I was working up the street at the O'Rourke Children's Center. We both worked nights, and in the summer I would walk to work and stop and visit with David and maybe have a wiener, talk wiener. He would tell me great stories about strange behavior in late night customers. We're talking 1973 or so—I think the clientele has improved since then. David was a very conscientious worker. He had long arms, and you know how they stack the wieners on their arm and put the condiments on?—I believe it was his downfall, because he wanted to be a great grill man, and he had hairy arms, and I think people might have been offput by the fact he did have a lot of hair on his arms. But what can you do? Put on a plastic sleeve?
For Byrne's part, memories of his time behind the counter at Original New York System don't include any reflections on ambitions thwarted by hirsuit appendages. "Yeah," he said in a 2008 Providence Phoenix interview, "I did work in a hot dog place where you'd put hot dogs up your arm. You'd kind of extend your arm and stack, like, eight hot dogs up. And then drip hot chili sauce all over them. Pretty disgusting."
In 2003, Pappas received a letter from staff Sergeant Robert Taylor of the 115th military police company, Rhode Island National Guard, then stationed in Iraq. Taylor begged for a supply of hot wieners to assauge his fellow Rhode Island soldiers' home sickness. Pappas obliged, sending enough dry spice mix to make 1,000 wieners. The gesture earned ONYS national attention and a visit from Nightline.
As long as we're on the subject of anecdotes, here's one from former owner Ernie Pappas, again from a 1987 Providence Journal article:
We had one fellow who had the record—twenty-four wieners by one man. It was Dr. Capobianco, who lived on Douglas Avenue. He's deceased now, a long time ago. He was a big fan of PC sports. After a basketball game he would come in with five or six fellows. He was good for six or eight by himself anytime. Two bites and down, they're gone. This particular night, some guy made a bet. "Doc," he says, "I bet you can't eat ten or twelve of those things." Doc says, "You got a bet." I was waiting on him. Twenty-one is as long as my arm can hold. Six guys bet the Doc he couldn't eat twenty hot dogs. That was a total of sixty dollars—and that was a lot of money back then. Come two o'clock and the Doc consumed twenty. He said, "I want four more." He had four cups of coffee to wash it down. Just to make it look good he said, "I'll have a hamburger."
Update, 2014: As previously mentioned, Gus Pappas retired in 2013. The business was passed on to new owners, with Gary Oakley as manager. Inevitably, new ownership means there have been some changes at Original New York System, and, depending on your perspective, that can be both good and bad. Gone are the various wrinkled, faded, scotch-taped photos, articles, and notices, replaced with professionally-made reproductions in presentation frames. The wedge-shaped interior is generally cleaner and tidier than it used to be. The cigarette machine is gone, but the Ms. Pac-Man, old-school pinball and claw machine games, and on-site ATM (they still only take cash) remain, while a CD jukebox has been added. The menu is expanded with breakfast offered all day, specialty burgers, and salads; the new owners are experimenting—seeing what they can add to draw in new customers, while keeping the old favorites to satisfy the regulars. Delivery is now available for "most of Providence."
And the wieners? Unchanged, thank goodness. They still go down so nice with a glass of cold coffee milk.
Update, December 2015: There's been a sign on the door that says "CLOSED for remodeling" since at least mid-October, and no answer on the phone. It's not looking good for one of Rhode Island's most iconic weiner joints.
Update, July 2016: ONYS is back! It re-opened July 10 under the management of the Toprak family. Hot wieners are still the stars here, but the menu has been revamped to include wraps, gyros (a nice addition, in keeping with ONYS's Greek roots), angus-steak burgers, chicken quesadillas, veggie burgers, and salads. Breakfast has been eliminated. There's not a lot of evidence of remodeling, and that's a good thing. The only obvious differences are a new menu board, a more uniform decorating scheme of framed articles and memorabillia (much of which is a holdover from the Pappas era), and a flat screen TV in the corner. But the booths, the worn tile floors, and the ATM in the corner are all the same.
Update, June 12, 2017: Baba's announced on Facebook they were adding burritos, tacos, and nachos to the menu. Mexican food seems out of place at a New York System, but we can't fault the owners for trying to appeal to a wider customer base. Also added: souvlaki sandwiches, another welcome nod to ONYS's Greek roots. Oh, and they take credit cards now.
Baba's Original New York System is open Monday to Saturday, 11am-12am; Sunday, 12pm-12am.