The Rebirth of Charlie’s Legendary Onions

On fall days like these, Jeanne Summa-Becvar used to wait for the kids to get off school so they could ride their bikes to her family’s hot dog truck in Brentwood. Her father, the namesake of Charlie’s Hot Dogs, and mother were there, as was the smell of the Sabretts steaming, and the onion sauce that made the family famous. Now, on almost every Saturday since June, she’s at the Islip Farmers Market selling those famous onions in 16-ounce jars to community members they brought together for 43 years.

Cropped Charlie & Onions

Charlie Summa, the founder of Charlie’s Hot Dogs and inventor of its famous onion sauce, poses with bags of onions on his daughter’s wedding day in 1982.

The Charlie’s faithful come steadily, and the memories still bowl over Summa-Becvar, who closed the truck in 2006. One Saturday, a teacher remembers how he used to reward his kids for good grades with the promise of hot dogs. A few weeks later, within two hours, it’s a man whose father took him to Charlie’s as a boy, a woman who craved the franks during her pregnancy, and a father whose son cried out for a Charlie’s T-shirt as a keepsake after moving to New Orleans. The memories so enchant Summa-Becvar that her two daughters, the third generation of the family raised on the truck, tease her about her familiar trance at the farmers market.

“I love it — I thrive on it,” she says. “It still, to this day, amazes me, its impact on so many people. You wish you could bring that back.”

After the Town of Islip renewed the permit for Charlie's Hot Dogs in 2000, following founder Charlie Summa's death, his family threw a customer appreciation day celebration featuring 50-cent hot dogs. The line stretched down the block.

After the Town of Islip renewed the permit for Charlie’s Hot Dogs in 2000, following founder Charlie Summa’s death, his family threw a customer appreciation day celebration featuring 50-cent hot dogs. The line stretched down the block.

Before food trucks got hip, Charlie’s — parked in front of the Summas’ home on Spur Drive North — was a community gathering place. (Grace’s had the East End; Charlie’s swaddled the Brentwood/Islip area.) Maybe the hot dogs, steamed in bouillon, and the onions, bathed in a slightly sweet, generously spiced sauce, brought customers in. But they came back for Charlie and his wife Rose, the faces of the business. If Rose saw a group of kids having the hot dogs, she’d always hand them a bag of chips, too. Charlie used to flirt with customers endearingly. “Why, don’t you look beauuuutiful today.” An uncountable number of families made a tradition of Charlie’s, including the former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, who started going at age 5 and brought the Food Network there for an episode on players’ favorite restaurants.

An uncountable number of families made a tradition of Charlie’s, including the former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason.

“My dad used to take me to this place after Little League games and before Little League games,” he says in the episode as he drives over. “And it was like a thing that he and I always did together.” Later, just before biting into a Charlie dog, he adds, “I’m sure there are people in other cities that think that they have the best hot dog, but this is my choice, right here.”

Over the years, Charlie’s attracted not just families but generations; seeing customers who’d come as kids bring their children years later always touched Summa-Becvar’s sister, Lorraine May. “That’s family,” May says. “That matters, doesn’t it?” Summa-Becvar worried she lost a generation during the nine-year absence. Old fans remembered, though, and some even strove to buoy the tradition in their own way. During the dark years, Suzanne Cruz, who grew up with Charlie’s in the ‘70s and even stuck with it — just onions and bun — during a quasi-vegetarian phase, tested her own recipes at home. She and her sons were the first customers on line, three hours early, when Summa-Becvar brought Charlie’s back for one day in 2013, and again at the Islip Main Street Fair in June. “I know it sounds crazy, because at the end of the day it’s onions, but there are so few things you had growing up,” Cruz says.

Jeanne Summa-Becvar at the Islip Farmers Market.

Jeanne Summa-Becvar at the Islip Farmers Market.

The strength of that nostalgia has braced Summa-Becvar and her husband of 33 years, Glenn, as they’ve pulled through the trials of being first-time business owners and stewards of the family legacy. In April, after she was laid off, they started selling the onions just to close friends and the most devoted old customers, including Joanne Beatty, who was raised on Charlie’s and did the same for her children. Beatty’s son Devin picked up trash as a boy at the truck in exchange for hot dogs and came back for lunch three times a week after graduating high school. When he was killed by a drunk driver in 2005, Summa-Becvar and her sister placed his order at the crash site every day for a week and re-named the No. 2 special the “Dev special.” Beatty has ordered multiple jars a week since April and given them to all the family and friends she can think of. “‘Your whole family, you’ve got them all coming to me,’” she remembers Summa-Becvar telling her. “I said, ‘Of course I do. I don’t forget what you did for my son.’”

Like her customers, Summa-Becvar recognizes the debt she owes to her past — one she repays by selling her parents’ onions, and the Charlie’s faithful repay by eating them again — is one she’ll never finish paying off. She turned down an offer from a financial backer to franchise the hot dogs in gas stations because she feared it would wash away the warmth of Charlie’s legacy. She’s considering opening her own storefront eatery, but for now, she’s content selling online and re-connecting at the farmers market and elsewhere. One weekend in October, she got to the market a 6 a.m., left at noon for a demonstration at Pat’s Marketplace in East Islip, and followed with a street fair on Sunday. As she packed up to go to Pat’s, I thought of a video I’d seen of Rose one day at the truck in 2000 a few years after Charlie died. It was customer appreciation day. The hot dogs were 50 cents, the line was hours long, and News12 came out to take in the joy.

“I’m so happy, and my children are happy,” Rose tells the interviewer. “I think Charlie’s looking down on me and saying, ‘Well, I’m proud of you.’ Because this is what he wanted, and I have to fulfill it.”