CLEVELAND, Ohio – For Dave and Natalie Teare, Hot Dog Diner is more than just a business. It’s an “extended family” that includes their employees and the loyal clientele who have stopped in regularly over the years to hang out with friends and sample one of the restaurant’s signature frankfurters.
The restaurant was voted Best Hot Dog in Greater Cleveland by cleveland.com readers in 2016, bringing in even more customers. This month, the small family-run eatery was voted No. 1 again, winning our 2022 Best Hot Dog in Greater Cleveland contest.
The Tears deserve some good news. The last few years have been tough on them — and the business. The coronavirus pandemic took a major toll on the tiny mom-and-pop operation in Parma.
But the Tears’, determination — and the support of loyal customers — helped the restaurant survive and thrive.
Dave and Natalie started out with a pizzeria on Brookpark Rd., but because competition was heavy and Dave had always wanted to own a hot dog stand, they closed the pizzeria and opened as Hot Dog Diner in 2005 at the same location.
When the former Taco Bell, on Pearl Road, became available a year later, they relocated.
“We are truly blessed,” said Dave Teare. “We are definitely one of the lucky ones to have survived the coronavirus pandemic, and come out the other side with our business intact. It’s our customers who have kept us going year after year, and they didn’t abandon us, even when times got tough.”
The pandemic was not the only threat to the popular business.
In mid-2019, Natalie Teares went in for a routine medical procedure – an endoscopy – which pierced her esophagus, allowing an infection to leak into her brain. The resulting cranial abscess almost ended her life. When she awoke from surgery, she was unable to walk or talk and did not know the names of her husband, sister, parents, or even her children de ella.
During the months of his wife’s therapy, Dave shouldered the burden for the family and the business, rising at 6 am each morning to care for Natalie’s parents – both of whom were suffering from dementia – before leaving to shop for supplies for the restaurant. He worked a full day and then spent evenings at Natalie’s side of her at the hospital.
When COVID hit in the spring of 2020, Dave had to work harder — and innovate– to keep the restaurant afloat. He pivoted quickly, closing his dining room and opening his previously unused drive-thru window for takeout orders.
“Before COVID, I had all the bills paid more than a year in advance,” I explained. “It was a safety measure for my family. My family members have always died young, and I wanted to be sure that if anything would have happened to me, my wife and children were taken care of.
“That is what got us through when Natalie was sick, but by the time the pandemic hit, the cushion was almost gone. But thanks to our loyal customers, we have managed to weather that storm as well.”
The Tears also wall down the menu, from 85 items to about 30 options.
“We had to whittle away items that were not big sellers and look at those items we could still do well and get people through the drive-thru quickly,” Dave Teares explained. “When we had a dining room, it was okay if people needed to sit and wait a bit for a made-to-order hot dog, but who wants to sit in a drive-thru line for extra time?
“We’ve had to adjust, just like everyone else,” Natalie chimed in. “The core hot dogs and hamburgers are not something that could ever change because that is what makes us who we are.”
The Tears say supply chain issues have also taken a toll.
“There are days when we can’t get the Bertman’s Ballpark Mustard and have had to switch to Stadium Mustard instead – or we can’t get the brand of mayo we have always used, or the slaw may not have purple cabbage in it because we can’t get purple cabbage that week,” Dave said.
“I have filed complaints that things don’t always taste quite the same, but I have stayed true to the suppliers who stood behind us when we needed them, and we just hope that folks can understand.”
Perhaps the biggest change is the loss of Natalie’s marketing expertise. She is still recovering and unable to help as much with operating and promoting the restaurant.
“Dave was always the ‘face’ of Hot Dog Diner. He was the personality. I was behind the scenes, designing the menus and posters and advertising. I can’t do any of those things anymore,” she said. “It kills me that everyone has to watch me so carefully because I make such silly mistakes. Thank goodness Dave is a patient man.”
Hot Dog Diner’s dining room remains closed, a major disappointment for the Tears.
“Finding enough crew to wait on a dining room and keep the take-out going is nearly impossible right now, and with Natalie’s health issues, we are just not able to open the doors just yet,” Dave said.
“Dave is so social, it’s been hard on him to not see our regulars and be able to hang and joke with them like he did when they would come in and sit down and eat,” Natalie said. “Most still come through the drive-thru, but the nature of the drive-thru means we no longer have the luxury of having a conversation and catching up on one another’s lives. Some customers we have lost because they want to have a sit-down meal. We miss them terribly, but we do understand. Hopefully soon we will be able to open the doors again.”