Five days a week, a little after noon, a line forms along the counter at the Walkin’ Dog hot dog stand in downtown Minneapolis.
“Two jumbos … pickles, sport peppers, brown mustard,” one customer says. “Cheddar brat with onions and sauerkraut, hold the ketchup and mustard,” says another.
Dave Magnuson, Walkin’ Dog’s “Sole Proprietor and Grand Poobah of the Weenie World” (as the website says), slides franks into buns, piles up the toppings and squeezes on the sauces, just as he has for nearly 30 years.
Magnuson’s spot is wedged into a dark corner of Northstar Center’s first-floor food court, its ceiling so truncated by the parking garage ramp that he nearly has to duck. Despite the building’s heavy foot traffic, it’s an unglamorous pass-through off the skyway system — the place where the sock fuzz collects.
That’s one reason why, every day, Minnesota walks up to his counter: a uniformed maintenance worker, a woman with a Target bag looped through one arm, a guy in a suit and aviator sunglasses whose watch looks like it costs more than Walkin’ Dog itself.
Our country consumes 20 billion hot dogs each year, and Magnuson takes pride in delivering his with a personal touch. He’ll top a dog any way you like it, and if you’re a regular, he’ll remember your preferences.
“What makes it fun for me are the people that you meet and talk to and sometimes get to know a little bit better and become friends,” he said.
Costumes and coupons
After managing Kmarts and working construction, Magnuson bought Walkin’ Dog through an ad in the paper, even though his food service experience was limited to a few summers in a State Fair booth.
Aside from Twins games at the Metrodome, the Falcon Heights native had been to downtown Minneapolis only about a half-dozen times. (“Being a St. Paulite, I had no reason to come down here,” he said.)
Walkin’ Dog’s early days were tough. After one of the building’s major tenants departed, business tanked. Magnuson and his wife, who helped him launch the business, served maybe 25 people a day.
“At the end of the week we didn’t have a $10 bill for a Blockbuster movie and a frozen pizza,” he said.
Locked into a five-year lease, he swallowed his pride and donned the hot dog costume that had come with the business. “I would walk around the skyways wearing that thing, handing out menus and coupons until the buildings would kick you out,” he said. “It was embarrassing.”
Business is much better these days, although it’s down from its early 2000s heyday, when Magnuson staffed three people just to keep up. He still arrives each day at 6 a.m. to start heating up the food and updating the books before turning on the lights at 10.
While Magnuson has dabbled in pre-made mini-donuts, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies and cheese curds (“a total flop”), franks have always been his focus. Over the years, he’s picked up some ideas on trips to Chicago or Milwaukee, including the Secret Stadium Sauce he discovered at a Brewers game. (Before concocting his own knockoff, he made annual pilgrimages to meet the stadium’s concessions manager to buy gallons of the stuff.)
The heart of Walkin’ Dog’s menu is the Chicago-style dog: a Vienna Beef frank, spicy mustard and onions, that funny green relish, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, and celery salt on a poppy seed bun.
“That’s kind of the mainstay,” Magnuson said. “People just walk up, ‘Give me a Chicago’ and boom! There it is.”
Each “boom” takes less than 30 seconds. But compared with Cheetah Pizza next door, where workers just hand over slices, customizing each dog creates time for a more personal connection, whether it’s joking about Chicagoans’ rejection of ketchup or inquiring after the kids.
Not that Magnuson can get too chatty: When customers start to approach the counter from three directions, he looks like a video game avatar as he pivots between them and the steam table, while his assistant rings up transactions.
A three-dog day
Some regulars have been coming for 20 years. Others have died. Magnuson delights in serving second-generation customers who were introduced to the spot on Bring Your Kid to Work Day. “It is like a neighborhood down here, a little town within a town,” he said.
Walkin’ Dog’s most famous customer, Sid Hartman (“our biggest fan”), now watches over the register in bobblehead and face-on-a-stick form.
Back when the 99-year-old Star Tribune sportswriter and WCCO Radio personality was younger, he’d frequently swing by for a chili dog with cheese, sidling right up to the register, ignoring the line (a habit Magnuson generously attributes to a lack of attention to protocol vs. shamelessly jumping the queue).
Even Magnuson’s most frequent customers don’t match his own hot dog consumption: typically one before the lunch rush, one after and, sometimes, one before he heads home. “Depending on what my wife is making for dinner,” he said.
He guesses he’s consumed several miles’ worth working at Walkin’ Dog, a fact, he admits, that frightens his doctor — although he prefers to chalk it up as the reason he’s taken only four sick days in 28 years.
Magnuson’s three children — who grew up watching Disney movies in Walkin’ Dog’s backroom before they graduated to working the counter — now have their own careers. His wife has another job, too. She has no desire to play her husband’s jack-of-all-trades role: Set up, serve, clean up; track inventory and regulations; negotiate leases; fix equipment.
If something would happen to him, she’s told him many times, there’d be a “For sale” sign on this place before he was cold.
But, at 59, Magnuson has no immediate plans to retire.
For now, those scuttling through downtown’s ever evolving labyrinth can take comfort in his constant presence — a ketchup-stained piece of the city’s furniture.