Richmond's Caspers a mecca of politics, community and famous hot dogs
By Robert Rogers
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 01/11/2013 04:31:00 PM PST
Updated: 01/11/2013 04:31:00 PM PST
RICHMOND -- The dangling bell jingles as you walk in the door. The "Wizard" swivels on a stool to your right, pecking at his laptop. The "hardest workin' man in Richmond" anchors the left, chewing fat with a constituent, trading guffaws with local beat cops and sweet-talkin' the ladies behind the counter.
Steam pours from hot dog cookers and coffeepots. The soundtrack is politics, culture and blue chitchat, laced with cash register jangles. It's all encased in a windowed rotunda on Macdonald Avenue, adorned with bright orange that screams 1973, not 2013. Welcome to Richmond's Caspers Hot Dogs, known by some as "City Hall West."
"People in this town know where to go if they need the attention of a city official, if they need something done," said the always loquacious, sometimes combative City Councilman Corky Boozé. "Come to my office; come to Caspers."
Richmond's Caspers is one of eight East Bay locations in the family hot dog chain, launched in the 1920s when Kasper Koojoolian led a procession of Armenian immigrants west from Chicago with dreams of prosperity. The idea took off, eventually reaching a dozen East Bay spots before contracting to eight. The founders left the business to a dozen heirs, said Ron Dorian, the 54-year-old grandson of original partner Steve Beklian.
Today, Caspers is in Oakland, Pleasant Hill, Dublin, Walnut Creek and Hayward, but none is quite like the Richmond shop. "We have others in more affluent
communities, but they don't do as well as this one," Dorian said, nearly hollering over the lunchtime din. "This one is right in the heart of the city, and it's embraced by a broad cross-section of residents."
The cross-section and character are on full display daily. Richmond, which has a large, multigenerational African-American population and a growing Latino majority, is among the Bay Area's most diverse cities, and that's reflected in the customers who amble in for Casper Dogs, Junior Dogs, sacks of potato chips and drinks.
Old-timers meet here and chat over coffee and newspapers in the westernmost booth, and mothers herd their kids in after school. The staff, mostly women and longtime employees -- Dorian says his generous health care benefits keep them -- call customers "honey" and dig change out of old-school cash registers.
Wes Johnson, dubbed "Wizard" because he tinkers with his computers and tablets by the coffee machine nearly every day, brings his television on fall Sundays so everybody can watch Oakland Raiders games.
"It's like 'Cheers,'" said Christine Martinez, taking a break to gab with -- and bat her eyes at -- a young Richmond police officer. "Everybody knows your name."
But it's more than that, especially in a city where politics often is bruising and colorful, much like the Chicago where Caspers' founders grew up, rather than a laid-back Bay Area suburb.
Councilman Tom Butt is in many ways Boozé's antithesis -- and his most bitter rival. Butt is a well-to-do architect with a taste for organic produce and a power base in the affluent historic district of Point Richmond. Boozé is an earthy former race-car driver with a zest for heated exchanges, and he counts Parchester Village, south Richmond and other historically working-class African-American districts as his base.
Boozé was allegedly punched by a political rival during a campaign event in Point Richmond last year.
Butt admits he rarely visits Caspers since he and Boozé fell out.
"I'm not a big hot dog guy, but I used to go there back in the day because that was the place to find Corky," Butt said. "I've always thought it was a cool place, iconic, with real friendly people."
Joe Fisher, a longtime resident and treasurer for the Black American Political Action Committee, puts it like this: "People who are into local politics probably equate Corky with Caspers, but for everyday people it's just the place with great hot dogs and those soft buns."
Caspers opened its Richmond store in 1947, and Boozé has been hanging here since the 1970s, when Caspers Dogs were 35 cents. He picks up and drops off paperwork here and gets calls, and the employees pass messages to him. Before his election in 2010, Boozé launched at least eight failed campaigns from his favorite hot dog joint.
"I don't care what the hucksters say at City Hall," Boozé said on a recent afternoon, waving an arm toward the Civic Center, which sits just outside Caspers' window. "These folks here, they don't go to the City Council meetings. ... They tell me what's going on in my community. I learn way more here than I ever learned at City Hall."
A customer interrupts, a 50-something African-American man in dingy work overalls seated a few booths over. "Corky, you're doing a good job!" he said, extending his fist toward the ceiling in approval.
Boozé bolts from his stool, tan work boots pounding the tile as he slides past one of the workers in an orange Caspers smock. She throws her hands up in mock exasperation.
"Let me get a handshake," Boozé said, lavishing praise ("I love my people") on his new friend before imploring him to articulate "what is it you like about Corky?"
"You don't take no stuff, no stuff!" the man said.
Soon, others have joined in, and the noisy conversation takes inscrutable turns.
For Dorian, it's all kind of amusing. He said Caspers may contract again at some point, but the Richmond store seems safe for perpetuity. His grandfather's picture still hangs above the coffee machine, looking down over the daily melange.
"It's hard to say what he would think about all this," Dorian said, "but I think he would be proud of how far we've come."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.