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May 22, 2017 Faces of Business

For 40 years, Woody’s hot dog business rides Hartford’s ups and downs

PHOTO | Steve Laschever Woody's downtown Hartford hot dog joint off Pratt Street houses various collectable trinkets and photos. Cindy and Gary Wood, the husband-and-wife duo who run the eatery, have maintained the business for 40 years.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever Woody’s most popular hot dogs are usually smothered with cheddar cheese sauce.
Stan Simpson

Cindy and Gary Wood remember their first encounter as Hartford teenagers in 1973. They were at a nightclub in Wethersfield. Cindy recalls a handsome jock who had caught her eye. Unfortunately, Gary was oblivious to Cindy's flirtations.

She decided to get more strategic; and, um, accidently spilled her drink on him. The subsequent apology spurred a conversation and a mutual interest. Eventually that led to a slow dance or two.

Cindy and Gary (aka “Woody”) were married four years later in 1977 — and have been pretty much inseparable ever since.

This husband-and-wife team owns and operates a popular downtown Hartford hot dog joint called “Woody's” that in recent years has become internationally renowned. A fortuitous plug eight years ago in a “Man v. Food” episode on the Travel Channel revived a business that is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“Man v. Food” host Adam Richman raved about Woody's “Deputy Dog,” a foot-long dog topped with barbecue pulled pork and cheddar cheese. Richman's “must try'' to his cable audience apparently resonated. “We had no idea of the impact,” said Cindy, 63. “We've had people stop in from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Italy, Israel … .”

Woody's evolution has been uneven over the past four decades. It all started with a newspaper advertisement selling a used white ice cream/food truck in 1977 for $1,100. At the time, both Woody and Cindy were looking for a career change. Cindy, a human-rights activist, worked as a waitress for many years, and tired of her job as a counselor. Woody was a head waiter/manager at a local restaurant, but wanted to make more money. Taking a chance as entrepreneurs in the food industry made sense.

“We were inclined to do that kind of business,'' Cindy says.

Soon, there were seven food carts added to complement the truck, then a custom 8-by-10-foot trailer that carried grills, steamers and fryers. The hot dog business was very competitive. Woody's signature spot was Jewel Street, adjacent to the carousel at Bushnell Park. There were other prime locations at Trumbull Street and at Main Street across from the Old State House.

What distinguished Woody's from the “New York-style” hot dog was foot-long dogs — instead of six-inch — plus the added chili, cheddar cheese and cheese sauce carried on the truck. Through the 1980s business was booming. The Capital City bustled with businesses and foot traffic. There were concerts galore, Whalers hockey and plenty of night life. The couple recalls city professionals after work driving home to the suburbs, showering, changing, and actually coming back to Hartford to party.

In 1996, Woody's settled in to 900-square feet at 915 Main St., more popularly known as the American Airlines building. Tenants in the nine-story structure included a bank and the Boys & Girls Club. Hot dogs are universal. Woody describes a “captive audience” above its first floor locale.

Plus, there were the pedestrians who would walk to the 20-seat eatery to pick up their custom hot dogs (ranging from $4 to $5.75), or a hamburger, sandwich, onion rings or French fries. In 2001, five years after opening at Main Street, Woody's expanded into a 900-square foot space abutting his place. It was remodeled into a 50-seat bar with a distinct Miami Dolphins theme. The couple had become rabid Dolphins fans on their yearly extended vacations to Florida. Pictures of former players Dan Marino, Mercury Morris, Mark “Super” Duper line the walls. The Dolphins brand is visible on tables, couches and banners. Woody's “man cave” was such a popular spot for Connecticut's Dolphins denizens that the NFL team named Woody's an official fan club, which means team memorabilia is sent to them each season.

Despair would best describe 2001. Nineteen terrorists highjacked four American Airlines planes crashing them into the two World Trade Center buildings in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and a field in Shanksville, Pa.

American Airlines vacated its Main Street location that same year. The other tenants were also out, as talks percolated about renovating the building into 101 apartment units.

“If we didn't have the reputation that we did we wouldn't have lasted,” Woody, 64, said. “We lost our breakfast crowd. We used to open at 7 a.m.”

The business was in decline, as was Cindy's health. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2002; her recovery became the couple's priority.

“What keeps us going is that we have a lot of loyal customers,” Woody says. “And another reason is the bar.” The 18 seats at the bar are all purchased, like annual season tickets, for $250 each. Names of the patrons are put on a brass plate. Every football Sunday, each seat holder gets a pitcher of beer.

The affable couple, ardent ambassadors and advocates for Hartford, are proud of the annual toy drive they've hosted for the past 20 years. Cindy Wood's health is fine these days. But Woody now has his challenges, dealing with a balky hip that needs surgery, delayed because he is a diabetic. He gets around on a mobile scooter.

In a private moment, the hot dog maven concedes the couple is relishing retirement; well, sort of.

“We're thinking about getting out of here,'' Woody said of the building. “And getting a truck.”

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of “The Stan Simpson Show,” on Fox 61.

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