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Sullivan's in South Boston offers challenge to Your Town correspondent

Posted by Cara Bayles  August 19, 2011 09:58 AM

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(By Maryann Sullivan)

Boston.com correspondent and vegetarian Cara Bayles cooks hotdogs at Sullivan's with the stand's young staff, many of whom have been working there since age 14.

I wasn’t even 15 minutes into my shift at Sullivan’s, the renowned hot dog stand on Castle Island, when Sue Geddis told me not to worry.

“Everyone makes mistakes when they first get started,” said Geddis, who has been working there for 24 years (“too long,” she joked), as she effortlessly brewed a fresh vat of coffee.

I hadn’t shared my anxieties with her, and wondered if I’d already made a mistake without realizing it. Maybe she was just anticipating one, which I can't hold against her; working at this South Boston institution is far more difficult than it looks.

I scoffed when my editor first suggested I work for a day at Sullivan’s. For one thing, the last time I’d worked in food service, I had such a predilection for slicing my thumb open, my boss at the time banned me from preparing bagels. Also, I’m a vegetarian, and Sullivan’s is known for its Kayem hot dogs.

But one day this month, I found myself shouting out orders, cooking onion rings and hotdogs, and sweating through a few minutes on the rapid-fire front lines of one of the more popular summer joints in Greater Boston.

After covering news in South Boston for a year, I’m no stranger to restaurants that use shamrocks as punctuation marks. But Sullivan's, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, is a local legend, catering to old-school South Bostonians (“the regulars”), as well as tourists. Urban lore has it that while Whitey Bulger was on the lam, he returned home incognito to satisfy a Sully's craving.

The restaurant sits a few steps from Fort Independence, once a colonial fortification during the American Revolution. The brick façade of Sullivan’s current location was built as a replica of the Commandant’s House, a structure originating in the early 1800s. Before the current location, Sullivan’s occupied a cinderblock bunker from 1963 to 1989, and prior to that, the restaurant started out as a concession stand.

Dan Sullivan Sr. opened the stand on Castle Island in 1951, selling hot dogs for 15 cents. These days, the dogs cost $1.60, and Dan’s grandson Brendan, a patient guy with a jolly face who seems unfazed by lines that wind out the door and into the parking lot, runs the restaurant.

When Brendan Sullivan started working for his father at the old cinderblock location as a 12 year old, he had to remember orders, and recite the trimmings for the cook once the burgers and dogs came up. Now, the employees enter the customers' requests into the register, which broadcasts your order to television screens all over the kitchen. Thank god.

That makes the job easier, but it’s still far from simple. The most terrifying television screen to be stationed in front of is the one hanging above the window that connects the kitchen to the counter. This station belongs to the puppet master of the whole operation. The position requires taking in orders and directing the entire kitchen, collecting a lobster roll from one end and an order of onion rings from the other, ensuring they end up together in the same order, dressing the hotdogs with mustard, relish, onions and ketchup, all while the boys carrying cartons of fresh French fries and trays of hotdogs yell, “Hot behind ya!”

The 15 minutes I worked at this station were grueling. It felt like performing multiple surgeries at once. It also conjured existential questions, like, “What am I doing here?” and “Who orders a hotdog with relish at 11 a.m.?”

Cooking was less stressful, though it was a little strange to be a vegetarian standing before about six dozen hotdogs splayed like large slimy fingers on the grill.

Mike Shaughnessy set the dogs on the stovetop so they curled around one another, then rolled the stack with a gloved finger, to cook the other side. When they were done, he would wrap a freshly toasted bun in a napkin, insert the hot dog, and place it on a tray with military precision and speed.

“Hey,” he deadpanned to a co-worker as he did this, “Tell Chris he’s doing a good job.”

He obeyed, barely having to turn his head in the narrow hallway of the back kitchen. “Good job, Chris, from Mike.”

“Thanks, Mike,” said Chris.

Many of the teenagers working at Sullivan’s have been spending their summers working the registers since they were of legal working age, and there’s a snarky comradery in the kitchen and behind the counter. Sullivan, working alongside his staff in the kitchen, remarked that they were unusually well behaved that day.

Roy Ramnarain, a gregarious 17 year old from Dorchester, began working at Sullivan's when he was 14.

"I hated it when I first started," he said. "But I really liked the people, so I kept coming back."

Sullivan said most of his staff, local teens from South Boston, Dorchester and Quincy, put in several years there.

“Once a kid joins on at age 14, it’s pretty much a 90 percent chance they stay until college,” he said.

"I guess you hold on to them," I said.

"They hold on to us," he corrected.

"I'll never let go, Brenden," said one of the guys, as he lowered a batch of onion rings into the deep fryer. "I'll never let go."

Sullivan’s double-batters its onion rings, dipping sliced onions in a tub of water, then a flour mixture, then another tub of water, then another flour mixture. Andrew Schaub explained that this ensured they were completely covered in batter when they cooked.

I would lose a few stray onions with each step in the process. Schaub quipped that I might get fired if I kept losing the occasional ring, and for a second, I felt like one of the boys.

A snarky kid who Sullivan categorized as “the charming one,” and who comes from a family of Sullivan’s employees, Schuab is something of an old timer among the majority of the staff. He’s 24, and has been working at the stand for a decade.

“That’s not at all depressing,” he quipped, as he ran to the window with an armful of fries.

My favorite work station was probably what the Sullivan’s staff calls “the expediator,” a job that allows you to shout for short thrilling bursts the number identifying an order as you carry cardboard trays stacked with hotdogs, sandwiches, fries and soda the final three feet of their journey, to the counter. You get to let off a primal scream, shouting out numbers over the din of the room for thrilling bursts, and locking eyes with the lucky patrons who eagerly run up, hands ready with mini cups of ketchup. For an instant, you get to be someone else’s favorite person, as you hand them the lunch they’ve been craving.

Catherine Joyce, a tiny teenager who will start at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in the fall, commanded the room with an unexpected authority, shouting off numbers and calling out stray orders.

My sense of time became warped at some point when I was working as the expediator. At Sullivan’s, each register is identified by the first number in the order, so you might call out 632 and then 245. This can really distort your sense of time.

I felt I had been counting in this frenetic way for an hour, but only ten minutes had passed. Still, I knew my stint at Sullivan's was almost over, and somehow, I grew a little nostalgic for the job I'd held for three hours.

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