Food

Flo’s Hot Dogs | Local Flavor

From a little red shack by the side of the road, Flo’s Hot Dogs in Cape Neddick, Maine serves some of New England’s most worth-the-wait franks.

By Amy Traverso

Jun 10 2016

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There’s a certain class of restaurant—not exclusive to New England, but right at home here—that’s known, even beloved, for its surly service. You go for a hot meal with a side of attitude—a server who suffers no fools, a little sass with your sauce. Think Durgin–Park or Dick’s Last Resort (a national chain), both located near the Boston tourist mecca of Quincy Market. In these places, you can be a glutton for food and punishment, and a few well-timed comebacks will earn your stripes with the front of the house. Flo’s Hot Dogs, located in a little red shack on U.S. Route 1 in southern Maine—a building so diminutive that customers over 6 feet tall have to duck so they don’t graze the ceiling—was one such spot. Florence Stacy was famously quick to put an ill-mannered customer in his place (and they were mostly men in those days). But few dared talk back, because the hot dogs were just so good. To be barred from Flo’s was a grave banishment.
Flo’s “House Special” dog, topped by the family’s rich secret-recipe relish.
Flo’s “House Special” dog, topped by the family’s rich secret-recipe relish.
Photo Credit : Meredith Perdue

The mood’s been a little lighter since Flo passed away in 2000 at the age of 92. As she aged, her son, John, and daughter-in-law, Gail, took over, running the place for decades. Now Gail splits the shifts with her daughter, Kim, who is as sunny and calm a personality as ever served hundreds of hot dogs in an 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. “My mom is a little more like Nana,” Kim says, as she lines up four hot dogs. “When I work with her, I sometimes have to say, ‘Mom, you can’t say that to people!’” But Kim says most of Flo’s grumpiness was a big act. “She was probably one of the most generous people you’d ever meet,” she says. And when Gail had to take an extended leave for ankle surgery earlier this year, her loyal fans and friends routinely stopped by to check on her progress.

Gail Stacy, Flo’s daughter-in-law, behind the counter.
Gail Stacy, Flo’s daughter-in-law, behind the counter.
Photo Credit : Meredith Perdue

Part of Flo’s lure was and continues to be the house relish, whose recipe came with the business that she, a widow with four children, bought in 1959. It was devised by the restaurant’s original owner, Robert Johnson, but has been modified over the years so that it now contains a multitude of ingredients. Sold by the jar for $7.95 online or at the shop, it includes onions, shallots, molasses, relish, vinegar, onion powder, “worcester sauce,” ketchup, and spices. The recipe is such a secret that Kim doesn’t even know it. “My dad put half of it in a safe-deposit box with instructions on where to find the other half,” she says.

Production is done at Pemberton’s Foods, a small gourmet sauce and co-packing outfit up in Gray, Maine, and the result is mahogany brown, richly oniony, with just the right blend of tang and sweetness. Paired with the salty all-beef dog (from Old Neighborhood in Lynn, Massachusetts), a lashing of mayonnaise, and a dash of celery salt, it achieves a perfect harmony of flavor and texture, a combo called the “House Special.” You can also order your dog “Fully Loaded,” with a tangy pileup of mustard, green relish, Flo’s relish, onions, and celery salt.

Really, any custom combination is possible, though a sign at the counter reads, “Ketchup (for [children] under 15).” Order two House Special dogs and a chocolate milk or a Moxie and you have the ultimate Flo’s meal. As one customer says on his way out the door, “Who’d think chocolate milk and Moxie would be your best-sellers unless you’re from Maine?”

Florence Stacy served up dogs with a side of sass.
Florence Stacy served up dogs with a side of sass.
Photo Credit : Meredith Perdue

Lunch is still served from a tiny prep kitchen behind a narrow counter. The hot dogs are boiled in a kettle, and buns are steamed to cloud-like fluffiness in a custom metal box that’s been running for 16 years and is perpetually on its last legs. Facing the counter, six octagonal wooden stools stand bolted to the floor. But there’s no room to sit and eat in the summer; the line snakes from the order window around the tiny room and well out the door. (Customers eat in their cars or retreat to picnic tables in the ample shade of a maple tree.) By the time most people reach the front, they’re hungry enough to down two or three dogs. Kim says the all-time record is 20. But the most memorable large order came from one longtime customer a few years back: Against policy, Gail let him pre-order 120 hot dogs because the next day was his father’s funeral. His dad had made just a few requests for his memorial, and one of them was Flo’s hot dogs for all the guests. Really, he wanted them for the grandkids; he used to take them there when they were little. He thought it would help them say goodbye.

Flo’s Hot Dogs. 1359 U.S. Route 1, Cape Neddick, ME. 800-255-8401; floshotdogs.com.