Column: Dave’s Red Hots, Chicago’s oldest hot dog stand, is even older than we thought

Dave’s Red Hots, the oldest hot dog stand in Chicago, can trace its history back to one teenager who walked out of Russia in the early 1900s.

You may remember our story last month about the shop’s current owners, the Fountain family. This year, the shop celebrates its 50th anniversary as a Black-owned business. Four generations of women now run the restaurant on the West Side of the city.

For decades, legacy customers and a 100-year-old former employee cited the shop’s original owners as a Jewish couple who opened it in 1938 on Homan Avenue and what is now Roosevelt Road. Hy and Rose, whose surname had been lost to time, named the restaurant for their son, according to the oral histories shared with Eugenia “Gina” Fountain, the current co-owner along with her mother, Shirley Fountain.

The full story has now been unearthed with help from the living descendants of not one, but two families, including an 88-year-old who once ate a hot dog five days a week and returned recently to the same booths he polished as a boy.

But first, back to that Russian teenager.

“Dave Kaplan walked out of Russia as a teenager when he was conscripted into the czar’s army,” said grandson Jerry Kaplan, 77, who knew his late grandfather well. “Because it wasn’t a good idea to be a private in the czar’s army if you were Jewish.”

Eventually that teenager found his way to Chicago.

“My grandfather became an active builder, contractor and carpenter around Chicagoland in the teens, ’20s and ’30s,” Kaplan said.

During the Great Depression, his grandfather went bankrupt. The family, which included wife Ida Kaplan, who worked at home caring for their children, floundered for awhile as he tried to find some other kind of work.

“He tried a cigar store and candy shop,” Kaplan said. “But my grandfather was a pretty happy-go-lucky, friendly kind of guy. He couldn’t bear to see children walk out without candy because they had no money.”

His grandfather gave away profits from the candy store, so it didn’t work out well.

“And then he hit on the idea to open up the hot dog stand,” Kaplan said.

Dave’s Red Hots opened sometime in the early 1930s. That means the oldest hot dog stand in Chicago is older than we thought. We don’t know the exact year, but do know it was earlier than previously believed, in 1938. The city’s historical license records only go back to 2002, a staffer told this inquisitive critic. The Kaplan family historical data, however, goes back through intertwined lives.

“My mother and father both worked for my grandfather at the hot dog stand while they were going to high school,” Kaplan said. “Neither of them finished at Marshall (high school), because during the Depression, they had to work so hard in the store.”

In 1938, Jerry Kaplan’s father, Isadore “Izzy” Kaplan, at 22 years old, married his childhood sweetheart, Helen Nochowicz. He started looking for a way out of the shop.

“My dad admired the route driver for Vienna who brought them hot dogs,” Kaplan said about his late father. “Because this fellow was out and about all around the city, seeing the sights and talking to different people all the time. And there was my dad, Izzy, peeling potatoes and chopping onions and stuck in the same dingy, little, dark, hot and steamy hot dog stand.”

A few years later, Izzy Kaplan would indeed go on to become a very successful Vienna distributor.

“I don’t know exactly when zayde actually sold the store,” Kaplan said, referring to his grandfather in Yiddish. “That part I don’t know.”

It’s also unclear if he sold the shop to another owner who ran it briefly, or perhaps had a middleman sell the business, because the next longtime owners didn’t know the founder of the shop they’d run for 30 years.

What is known is that in 1941, Max Karm and his sons, Nathan Karm and Hyman “Hy” Karm, bought the hot dog stand. Daughters-in-law, Martha Karm and Rose Karm, would also work in the store.

“Dave’s Red Hots was owned by my father, my uncle and my grandfather,” said Irv Karm, 88, Nathan and Martha Karm’s son. “It was already called Dave’s, but nobody knew who Dave was.”

A tavern called Jack’s Foxhole stood on the southeast corner, with the hot dog shop next door at 1209 S. Homan Ave. The shop was three times the size of the current location, with seven booths and eight counter stools.

“Similar to the current owners, everybody in the family ended up working there at one point,” Karm said. “All my cousins and I worked on weekends and after school. It became my full-time job after high school.”

The only food they sold were the original four items still available today: hot dogs, Polish sausages, salami sandwiches and pastrami sandwiches. All were served on hot dog buns with french fries. And about 95% of what they sold was hot dogs.

“I started working there from the time I was 12,” Karm said. “We sold cold pop in bottles and kept them in refrigerated cases in the front of the store. I would fill the cases and clean the booths.”

The seven wooden booths each had a jukebox, originally.

“From the age of about 14 until 22, I probably had a hot dog five days a week,” Karm said, laughing. “So according to that new study, each one cut 36 minutes off my life. I probably should’ve been dead a long time ago.”

Keep in mind, those were six-to-the-pound Vienna hot dogs. In later years, the family changed to eight to the pound. The shop now serves 12-to-the-pound hot dogs, skinny, but still snappy with natural casings.

“My dad and my uncle were both very stubborn. The only condiments they had in the store was mustard, pickles and peppers,” said Karm. “They refused to put in anything else, because my father said anything else ruins that taste of the hot dog.”

They also wouldn’t use poppy-seed buns, a tradition that also persists.

One thing that’s missing now has bothered him for years.

“After the war, I believe in the late ’40s, my father put up a large outdoor neon sign that was one of the first outdoor neon signs that I remember,” Karm said. “It was pretty impressive.”

The sign would flash between “Dave’s Jumbo Red Hots,” and “Dave’s Famous Red Hots.”

“It was working in an institution, not in a store,” Karm said. Four generations of the family would take shifts throughout the day. At 22, he was married with a baby, so he left work in retailing.

Meanwhile, a retired Dave Kaplan fell into poor health in his later years, but enjoyed family vacations in Florida. The Jewish immigrant who walked out of Russia to escape the czar’s army loved nothing more than sunning himself in the warm Miami Beach sunshine. He died March 23, 1960, at 69 years old.

The last time Karm was at the family hot dog shop was two days after the riots in Chicago following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

“I drove my father, who was living on the North Side, down to see what was left,” Karm said. “It was the only thing standing. He opened it up probably a week after the riots.”

They got back to business, serving the community that saved them, but there was one small thing.

“Just before he sold the business, the neighborhood had changed and people started asking for ketchup, which really upset my father,” Karm said, laughing. “They asked for it so frequently that he brought in the little individual packages of Heinz ketchup. But he would charge a nickel for a package.”

Gina Fountain found their sign that read “5 cents for catsup.” Fountain stocks Red Gold ketchup, because she prefers the flavor. It’s given freely, but still only in packets, because she doesn’t want to see ketchup on hot dogs either.

In 1971, Karm’s family sold Dave’s Red Hots to Fountain’s father, Eugene Gaines.

Fifty years later, on a recent beautiful sunny day, the three families behind Dave’s Red Hots met for the first time at the oldest hot dog stand in the city.

Dave Kaplan’s grandson Jerry Kaplan lives in California, so he couldn’t join the family reunion. His cousins David Meyerson (who first emailed me and was named for his grandfather) and Ronald Meyerson came instead. They brought vintage family photos in a manila envelope. Their late mother, Sonia Kaplan, also worked at her father’s shop, before marrying Ruben Meyerson, who became known as the Mayor of Roosevelt Road.

Irv Karm came with his family, including stepdaughter Lisa Paddor (who emailed me, too, about Hy and Rose’s nephew, her stepfather).

Gina Fountain opened the same booths Irv Karm polished as a boy. Those wooden booths remain roped off otherwise, as they have since the pandemic closed indoor dining in March 2020. Fountain sent out Polish sausages for everyone, kosher style (mustard, pickle and sport peppers only), each with a side of some of the best fresh-cut fries around Chicago.

“The booths seem smaller, but the food tastes the same,” Karm said, laughing again.

“No one would believe that when we had Dave’s, it supported four families,” he added. “And now, I see the same thing is happening.”

Dave’s Red Hots

3422 W. Roosevelt Road


Open: Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Prices: $4.25 for hot dogs with fresh-cut fries; $2 corn dogs to $11.92 pastrami sandwiches with fries

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, no public restroom