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Issue: Discover Hollywood Fall 2019

Pink's 80th: From Hot Dog Cart to Global Icon

Michael Darling

A   few years ago, Aretha Franklin was planning a Christmas party at her Detroit home, and she wanted hot dogs. However, the Queen of Soul didn’t want just any hot dogs; she wanted dogs from Los Angeles’ landmark hot dog stand Pink’s. So, the restaurant shipped the hot dogs to her. There was just one problem, somehow the package was sent to Flint, Michigan. “We put one of our employees on a plane.” says co-owner Gloria Pink, “We flew him first class, because it was Christmas and everything was booked; he picked up the hot dogs in Flint and served them at the party.” When Betty and Paul Pink started selling hot dogs at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Melrose Avenue in 1939, they probably never would have thought their hot dogs would be wanted nationwide.

It all began with a simple hot dog cart. In 1939, Betty and Paul Pink were out of work and spotted an ad in a newspaper’s classifieds for a $50 hot dog cart. “Since nobody could give them a job, they decided to go into the hot dog business and become entrepreneurs,” says their son, Richard Pink. After purchasing the cart, they set up shop at La Brea and Melrose. There was one small problem, they didn’t have any power for the electric cart. “There was nothing here, it was just oil fields and weeds,” says Richard’s sister, Beverly Pink-Wolfe. So, they went to a local hardware store and purchased a 100-yard extension cord, and for the first two years, Pink’s power supply was plugged into that hardware store.

In 1941, the landlord raised the rent and the Pinks went to a bank across the street from the hot dog cart and asked for a loan to help buy the property. While they coulnd’t offer any collateral, they reminded the banker that he ate at their cart every day and he knew the quality of their product. The banker agreed and gave them a $4,000 loan to buy the land. They continued working out of the cart for five years until 1946, when a relative of theirs started his construction business by building them a hot dog stand, and that is still the building that houses Pink’s to this day.

Although the Pinks were initially “lucky to sell 50 to 100 hot dogs a day,” according to Richard Pink, as the neighborhood grew around Pink’s, the business became more popular and became a Hollywood icon. “Now we sell 1500 to 2000 hot dogs a day,” says Richard. Though both Betty and Paul Pink passed away in the 1990s, Richard and Beverly and Richard’s wife Gloria have helped run the business since the 1980s. Of course, Richard and Beverly have worked at the restaurant in some capacity all their life; as kids, they’d come to the stand after school to do their homework and work behind the counter. They’ve lost count of how many hot dogs they’ve eaten in their life, but Richard Pink jokes “I’ve eaten so many hot dogs over the years, my skin has turned to natural casing.”

Pink’s is now famous for its walls covered in photos of famous customers. Ironically though, while the walls now showcase household names, the tradition began with people trying to break into Hollywood. Wannabe actors would come to Pink’s for a cheap lunch and attempt to attract the attention of the more powerful clientele like Orson Welles, who Gloria Pink alleges holds the record for most hot dogs consumed in one sitting, 18.   “They heard we had producers and directors who were coming, so they’d tack their photos on the wall in the hope they’d get discovered,” says Richard Pink. At least one success story came out of the “job board” at Pink’s. “Supposedly Michael J. Fox got the call for Family Ties at the phone booth that used to be out front,” says Gloria Pink. “He considered Pink’s his office,” adds Richard.

However, the biggest honor at Pink’s is to get a hot dog named after you. There’s no hard rule about who gets honored, but celebrity dogs are usually based on what the star actually orders at Pink’s. The Martha Stewart Dog (9-inch hot dog, relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut and sour cream), for instance, is based on what Stewart ordered when she dropped by the hot dog stand on a whim with her entourage. Celebrity chefs Emerel Lagasse and Giada de Laurentiis (“She’s been coming here since she was 14,” says Gloria Pink.) both worked with Pink’s to create their namesake dogs.

Having a Pink’s dog named after you has become such a Hollywood status symbol that celebrities will have been known to gift each other dogs or compete about the taste of their namesake hot dogs. In 2017, Queen Latifah personally commissioned Pink’s to design a hot dog for comedy icon Carl Reiner’s 95th birthday. One time when Rosie O’Donnell had Martha Stewart on her talk show, according to Richard Pink, O’Donnell bragged “I have something you don’t have, a Rosie dog named after me at Pink’s’. So Martha says, ‘That’s not true, I have a Martha dog at Pink’s.” They then marched the two dogs out and ate them on tv.”

For all of their celebrity clientele, the Pinks still get surprised by certain guests. On one otherwise normal business day, a man came up to Gloria Pink asking to speak to a manager. “He was wearing casual clothes and I just assumed he didn’t get enough chili or wanted more fries. Then he showed me his Secret Service brochure and explained a very special guest was coming in 25 minutes.” According to Gloria, the Secret Service agent wouldn’t say who it was, only explaining “If you live on this planet, you’ll recognize this person.” About 25 minutes later, black cars pulled up and First Lady Michelle Obama came out with her two daughters. The Obamas waited in line and the first lady ordered a Polish dog with grilled onions and mustard; while the kids just had ketchup on their dogs. Aside from customers getting security wanded and told not to take photos, it seemed like any other day at Pink’s.

For their 80th anniversary, Pink’s will continue an annual tradition, Chili Dogs for Charity. For eight nights, starting on November 8th, chili dogs will be sold for 80 cents for 80 minutes starting at 8PM. Every night, a different celebrity will step behind the grill and help sling chili dogs, with all proceeds going to charities of the celebrity’s choice. Past celebrity slingers have included mayors of L.A., Jason Alexander, Henry Winkler and the late Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn.

As for Aretha Franklin, she was incredibly appreciative of all the work Pink’s did to get the hot dogs to her party, calling the Pink family to thank them and later inviting them to see her in concert in downtown L.A. The Pinks arrived at the show with hot dogs for Franklin and all of her crew. Following intermission, Franklin started the second half of the concert by emerging on stage in a Pink’s visor and offering some of the extra hot dogs to front row audience members. “For the rest of the show she never took off the visor,” says Gloria Pink. “At the end of the night, after receiving multiple standing ovations, Franklin told the crowd to go to Pink’s.” DH