4521 Telegraph Ave. (at Shattuck Avenue), Oakland
Tentative opening: fall 2022
Emil Peinert has been obsessed with Original Kasper’s — the long-abandoned, graffiti-covered, four hundred and ninety square-foot triangular building on the island where Shattuck and Telegraph meet — for years. Peinert is a co-owner of Oakland’s Kingfish Pub and Café, and is widely credited with the 2009 reopening of the (100-year-old, some say) bar, as well as its 35-yard, piece-by-piece relocation in 2015 from its original spot on Claremont Avenue to 5227 Telegraph Ave., so it’s safe to say his appreciation of old buildings knows few bounds. There was something about the little flatiron building that’s stuck with him for a decade — and now, he’s in the process of renovating the spot, with hopes to reopen the Temescal hot dog haven by fall 2022.
A bit of history and some links to the past: Original Kasper’s founder Kasper Koojoolian and his brothers, along with their cousins, the Beklian brothers, were Armenians who fled Turkey as young boys — making it to France and then Philadelphia before arriving in Chicago in the early 1900s. In 1929, after one too many Chicago winters, Koojoolian decided to relocate to California, where he opened the first Kasper’s. The Chicago style dogs he served up (precisely layered with sliced — not chopped — onions and tomatoes, traditionally described as “dragged through the garden”) were a West Coast hit.
Kasper’s son-in-law, Harry Yaglijian, was orphaned along with his sisters in Armenia, and lived in Russia, then Syria, Lebanon, and Iran in his earliest years. He and his family moved to Cuba where he trained as a cobbler, and in 1939, he immigrated to Southern California and expanded his skills into the field of lapidary, working as a gem cutter. Neither of these talents would have led him to the hot dog business, but he fell in love and married Kasper’s daughter Mary, which brought him into a life of spreading mustard and relish (never ketchup, don’t even ask) onto dogs nestled in steamed poppy seed buns, at the Original Kasper’s location at 4521 Telegraph Ave., almost since its opening in 1943.
(Meanwhile, the Beklian brothers — the cousins mentioned above — opened their own hot dog stand in 1939 and called it Casper’s. Other relatives ran another Kasper’s on Telegraph in Berkeley. In 1998, there was even a Casper’s vs Kasper’s kerfuffle when Casper’s filed a civil lawsuit against the owners of Kasper’s claiming trademark infringement. To add to the confusion, there are now chains of both Casper’s and Kasper’s, but there is only one Original Kasper’s. Are we good?)
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Harry once said that he’d sold enough hot dogs to circle the moon, then — years later — revised his estimate to say “they’d reach the farthest planet! They’d circle the universe!” (Not sure if the math would back up this claim.) Harry’s son, also named Harry, once estimated that his father sold as many as five million hot dogs over the 50 years he worked at the Oakland spot.
Some called the prepared dogs works of art. One time a woman stopped by and ordered seven hot dogs to carry on her flight to Denver to visit her father. “Get them or don’t come,” her father had reportedly said. Others have noted that Harry Sr. established rapport with people as he made up each and every dog. He learned “over the counter” how to converse with his customers in several languages, former patrons said.
But in 2003, Harry Jr. closed the Original Kasper’s down for repairs of its then-60-year-old kitchen. But fixing the structure was more than Yaglijian could afford, and it never reopened. The building has been empty and boarded up ever since.
That’s where Peinert comes in. A financial advisor who moved to the area in the mid aughts, his affection for Kingfish is why the storied bar remains — in 2005, it permanently closed for licensing violations, and it was Peinert and his partners who reopened the Kingfish in 2009. Even after they moved the venue, Peinert and his partners’ focus was on preserving the dive’s history and keeping things as-is.
He’s also the guy who’s been working to build a tribute to 128-year-old Berkeley restaurant Spenger’s Fish Grotto, with $30,000 worth of Spenger’s memorabilia and a diner in the Kingfish space, but that’s a whole other story. Suffice it to say that Peinert is approaching the Kasper’s project with the mindset with which he’s tackled those other efforts. He insists that the new Kasper’s will look and feel the same as the old one — only better, and up to current health and safety standards.
Old buildings are cool, but doing the kind of painstaking historic restoration that Peinert finds so satisfying is only part of the picture when it comes to Kasper’s. It’s about making the building whole and improving things by today’s standards, but it’s also about restoring a part of the neighborhood that meant so much to so many.
Listening to a Soundprint documentary recorded at Kasper’s in 2003, you can hear the love in the voices of customers along with the constant cha-ching of the restaurant’s old-fashioned cash register. The restaurant’s atmosphere, one person said, was “like ‘Friends’ only with hot dogs.” Another person said, “It’s a place — if it were not there — there would be a hole in people’s lives. Kasper’s is a place that will always be there, because it has to be there.”
In an article from the Oakland Tribune circa 1995, a reporter asked, “Where else could you munch on zesty $1.99 all-beef franks, sip Sarsparilla, Delaware Punch, [and] Yoo-Hoo chocolate drinks … in a vintage setting next to a bucket of rainwater from a leaky roof?” But that roof, and decades of deferred maintenance, are why Yaglijian closed the spot down, and are also why the renovation project has taken as long as it has.
Besides the interior work that needs to be done, Kasper’s abundant amount of decorative neon has to be replaced. The white-aproned cartoon figure on the roof, reportedly a comic rendering of Kasper himself, needs a makeover too. The building, described by KALW as a “wistful landmark for longtime residents and a mysterious artifact for newcomers,” will eventually return to its vibrant deep red-and-mustard yellow color scheme (but with some of its current mural preserved). The restaurant’s nine original barstools are in storage, ready to get back in the game when Kasper’s — the tiny, oddly-shaped building with a dedicated team behind it — reopens.
But when will that be? As of a couple of weeks ago, work on the building had made considerable progress, so Peinert said he hopes to open Kasper’s sooner rather than later. But there is no firm opening date yet. Given supply chain delays and other construction issues, it’s hard to predict if Kasper’s will open its doors later this summer or early in the fall.
But once all of that is accomplished, Kasper’s will once again serve up those classic Chicago dogs (with a couple of added items on the menu as well) along with soda, beer, and wine — to be enjoyed on the go or in the new outdoor seating area.
One might wonder: When is a hot dog more than a hot dog? Perhaps when it represents a time when a neighborhood stand welcomed all kinds of people: politicians, students, workers, sports heroes, rock stars, actors, couples making a last stop before the delivery room, families, high rollers and those down on their luck — and anyone in need of that simple, perfect Original Kasper’s dog. And then there’s the dish, itself, a potential symbol for the East Bay, despite its Midwestern origins.
Noted food historian and hot dog aficionado Bruce Kraig describes the Chicago-style hot dog as “the very model of ethnic mixture, from basic sausage to the toppings on the assembled hot dog.
“You, the individual can make it by pluck and luck. Hot dog places are all about this … Americans revere the idea of individualism and, at the same time, community. Going to a stand or standing on a street and eating from a cart gives strength to all of these feelings that rise from the experience.” And these days, Americans need all the pluck, luck and community they can get.