Curly, Milwaukee's hot dog king passes away
Forget robins in the spring.
Richard Niemczynski's customers knew when spring was really in the air.
It smelled like hot dogs and brats and Italian, grilled in the open air at E. Wisconsin Ave. and N. Water St. The season officially began about April 1 - weather permitting - continuing until November.
Niemczynski believed mustard and ketchup should be squirted with a flourish, in zigzag lines. Sandwiches were wrapped in waxed paper, with a neat little twist at each end.
Everyone from well-heeled business folks to students on a budget would line up for a taste of summer in a bun.
Niemczynski believed in keeping his prices low but did not engage in price wars at his corner. Vendors setting up shop nearby found it hard to compete with his Real Dogs business and usually moved on to other territory.
This year, Real Dogs will be back, but not Niemczynski. He died Dec. 20, months after being diagnosed with an aggressive lung cancer. He was 59.
"I'm so grateful I got to know him and learn from him," said new owner Jeremy McCown, 28. He bought Real Dogs with business partner Mark Keishian, 48, before Niemczynski's death. "He taught me everything he possibly could about the business, and I got to hear a lot of stories.
"He was a very generous person, very outgoing, very business-oriented. His customer service and personality really shined through."
Niemczynski, also known as "Curly," was born and raised in Milwaukee, graduating from Pulaski High School. He served with the U.S. Air Force in Illinois for four years in the mid-1970s. Then he returned home, worked at Allen-Bradley and earned a degree in economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Truth be told, Niemczynski for a while was in the wrong kind of business, as he later acknowledged. He was selling cocaine.
In 1979, he was busted and sentenced to three years probation. In 1981, he was arrested again, this time by federal agents. He served 34 months in a federal prison.
"I made a mistake," Niemczynski said, ruefully admitting that he also earned a reputation for selling a good product.
He brought that same pride to the hot dog business, first in Florida and then here about seven years ago.
Niemczynski grilled all kinds of Usinger sausage. Condiments included warm - not cold - sauerkraut and a choice of tangy brown or yellow mustard. Customers had a choice of either raw onions or New York-style spicy onions prepared the way a woman named "Babe" taught him in Florida.
"Oh, those onions," said his mother, Genevieve Budney. She would slice pounds of onions every night, then get up at 6 a.m. to start cooking them for the day's business.
"They have kick," she said. "Everybody's asking for the recipe, but he was fussy about who he would give it to."
The new owners at Real Dogs are in on the secret.
Niemczynski worked more than just the weekday lunch trade at Water and Wisconsin. Weekends were spent working soccer games, festivals and other events, plus regular late-night stints in front of Rosie's Water Works on Water St., McCown said.
Niemczynski worked in summer 2007 as much as he could but knew he wouldn't see another selling season.
"Mom, this is your last year in the hot dog business," he told Budney.
"He bought me a fireplace, an electric fireplace, I always wanted, way before Christmas," she said. "He seemed to know he wouldn't be around. . . . He was an original. If anybody needed help, he was there, always, for financial things and everything else."
Other survivors include a brother, Douglas, and nieces and nephews.
Services have been held.