One thing I notice sitting at the counter of Old Fashion Hot Dogs is that people like to reminisce about it, even while they're sitting right there at the counter.
"On a Friday night, you couldn't get in this place," says a customer six stools down. His name is Paul, and he's been coming here since 1956. Another customer, a young construction worker on his lunch break, wasn't alive back then, but his grandmother used to take him here when he was a kid.
I ask him if the place has changed since then. "Not much," he says.
It doesn't surprise me. On the corner of West 41st and Lorain, Old Fashion Hot Dogs is a true lunch counter: 9 feet by 40 feet, with a griddle perpetually loaded with hot dogs. Cleveland memorabilia and media write-ups hang behind the bar.
The menu is an old-fashioned letter board with moveable characters, and the prices — $1.75 for a chili dog, three for $5 — seem not to have inched up since the '70s. Which makes sense for a business that started in 1928.
"We got by for many years on volume," says co-owner Tom Sorma. "Volume is everything."
Volume and perhaps some history. Emmanouel "Mike" Vasiliou, a Greek immigrant with some New York restaurant experience, opened and ran the place for decades without eating a single hot dog.
"He tried one once and spat it out," Sorma tells me. "He avoided processed meats and all that stuff." Vasiliou may have been onto something: He lived to be 98.
Vasiliou sold the business in the '80s. Sorma's brothers, John (now deceased) and Pete, knew the model from working there, so they decided to buy it. The Sorma family has run Old Fashion Hot Dogs for 30 years.
The restaurant has a few claims to fame. One is the beloved chili sauce that graces the onion-and-mustard-covered franks (Sorma will readily divulge the sauce's "secret ingredients" are cinnamon and nutmeg). Another is its classic blade sign that hangs over Lorain with a beckoning yellow arrow.
The diner even had a role in a recent movie, 2016's Nas-produced, Cleveland-set and-shot The Land.
"The director talked to Pete about shooting here," says Sorma. "We thought he was joking." He was not. The sign and the restaurant interior are featured prominently in several scenes. Pete and his wife even have a cameo as patrons.
Still, Sorma describes business as hit or miss. "The first 13 years were solid," he says. "After 2000, things changed."
Sorma points to closing steel mills, failing mom-and-pop shops, and the Plain Dealer moving from the city as contributors to the restaurant's decline in numbers. Shifting demographics, too, have played a role.
"These young kids, they like West 25th," says Sorma. "They want to go to a spot where they can get food and a beer at the same time. Hopefully, we can hang in there with all this new modern stuff."
Sorma imagines it won't be long until a developer buys the building to raze it. Or not. "I could be here another 20, 30 years!"
Sorma doesn't seem mad about it. At the counter, we aren't either.