Person of the Week
Chris Groat: Going to the Dogs
Chester’s Chris Groat is the Chris in Chris’ Dogs, which has been busy all through pandemic and power outages at its spot by the Deep River-Essex border. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
President Franklin Roosevelt served them to the King and Queen of England on their only visit to the United States in 1939. The most expensive one ever sold went for $2,300, a foot-long extravaganza made with prize Japanese beef, topped with sauerkraut and onions braised in champagne, and, finally, garnished with caviar.
Still, anybody can get one at a ball park, a family barbecue—or at Chris’ Dog House in Deep River. Her stand is on Route 154 just beyond the Essex-Deep River boundary line.
That’s where Chris Groat serves hot dogs with all the trimmings six days a week. She dishes up a variety of other food as well, from hamburgers and breakfast sandwiches to Philly cheese steaks.
Still, it is the hot dogs that people come for.
“If you run out of Philly cheese steaks, no problem, people get a hot dog and I never run out of them,” Chris says.
Chris sells between 75 and 100 dogs every day. One of the favorite toppings is her homemade red sauce; she uses 30 pounds a month. She is reluctant to divulge the recipe but it allows that it has tomato sauce, onions, and Worcestershire sauce.
On a recent day at 10:30 in the morning, a large truck pulled in and the driver ordered a hot dog to go. When a visitor observed it was early for lunch, Chris had a ready explanation: “People eat them for breakfast; they eat them all day,” she says.
There are sodas and chips but no French fries. Chris explains there is no place to get rid of the deep-frying grease and even more critical, the fries are too big a temptation for her.
“I would snack all the time on them,” she says.
Chris is even busier during the pandemic than she was before. That is because she never had to close.
“We are the quintessential take out; our numbers grew hugely,” she explains.
She has put two traffic cones in front of the order window so people will keep an appropriate distance.
Some patrons don’t take their meal very far, sitting at the picnic tables that allow ample space for social distancing. One couple, which visits regularly, bring place mats which they lay out on the table.
The recent widespread power outages meant more customers as well; because she uses propane, Chris was able to keep cooking.
“There were lots of people; everything they had in the freezer was gone,” she says.
Summer isn’t the end of hot dogs for Chris. She stays open for all but a few weeks of the winter, adding homemade soups to her menu. And despite the cold weather, constant cooking keeps her trailer warm. In the summer, the inside is more than warm—sometimes, she says, with food preparation in such a small space, the temperature rises to more than 100 degrees.
Any time of year, there is one kind of eater that get special treatment from Chris’s Dog House: dogs. At Chris’ Dog House, they all get a free hot dog.
Chris started her stand nine years ago, first with a cart and for the last four years with a customized trailer that has both a grill and a steamer. The small floor space is stacked with the coolers where she keeps the food.
Chris had worked in restaurants before and knew exactly how she wanted to equip her small kitchen.
“I wanted it to be the best stuff, to look good and professional, to have good quality restaurant equipment,” she says.
Chris tows the trailer home to Chester every night, unloads all her coolers and scrubs the inside of the vehicle down. The next morning, she loads the coolers once again, and is off to her spot, which she rents from the convenience store next door. She has health inspections regularly, just as any other restaurant would.
In summer, Chris drives the wagon up to the Deep River Green to do refreshments for the horseshoe league one evening a week and also provides food for a cruiser car show in Haddam. For the horseshoe players, she adds her own meatloaf. It is a popular choice among the players.
“She makes a smokin’ meatloaf sandwich,” says horseshoe regular Scott Allen, Sr.
“They are always asking me for the recipe,” Chris says, “but I can’t give it to them. I make it a different way every time.”
In what she has of free time, Chris is a reader; she likes historical novels and now is reading a book about Winston Churchill. She also loves to paddle board. She first tried it one day about six years ago and the next day went out and bought the equipment. Chris, who grew up in New Jersey, says her fondness for the water came from childhood summers on the Jersey shore.
This year, Chris has some help: her daughter Christine Hruska, whose regular job has been disrupted by the pandemic, and college student Noella Kiely.
“I’m not getting younger and this is hard work,” she says.
But it is work that she loves.
“I am my own boss,” she says. “It’s a ton of work, but I can call it my own.”
And she intends to call it her own for a lot longer.
“I’m going to be serving hot dogs when I am using a walker,” she says