The East Bay hot dog empire traces its roots to a common Armenian-American ancestor, Kasper Castigian. According to his grandson, Paul Rustigian, these days, a Caspers sausage company also makes the hot dogs for Kasper’s.
Way back in 1934, an enterprising, young Armenian-American street hot dog vendor in Chicago named Kasper Castigian, like a lot of people at the time, heeded the call to “go West, young man.” And so he did, bringing his own special brand of hot dogs to the fertile streets of Oakland. Business boomed, and soon his cousins showed up and followed suit. Before long, brick-and-mortar stores named Kasper’s began to spring, and an East Bay hot dog empire was born. In the 1940s, some of the cousins wanted to buy Castigian out, but he chose to give the stands to his kids. He did, however, allow the group to open its own chain and use the Kasper’s name, but the group decided to go with Caspers instead. Today there are eight Caspers and six Kasper’s spread throughout the East Bay. As a well-known hot dog connoisseur, I’ve often wondered what the difference between the two chains was. For answers, I turned to Paul Rustigian, a grandson of one of the founders. He, along with another grandson, Ron Dorian, runs Caspers Famous Hot Dogs. A true hot dog vet, Rustigian really cut the mustard with the anecdotes.
Paul Kilduff: What’s the difference between the “C” Caspers and the “K” Kasper’s hot dog?
Paul Rustigian: The “K” Kasper, their flagship hot dog is an all-beef hot dog. Ours is a beef-pork mix. That’s the main difference. Of course, we think it’s better with the pork. It adds a little more flavor. It’s juicier, in our opinion. They look the same. If you held them side by side, you wouldn’t be able to tell. So they’re made in a similar process. It’s just that the ingredients are a little bit different. I don’t know how long ago it was, maybe within the last five years, they came to us and asked us to start producing their hot dogs for them.
PK: No way.
PR: So now, our sausage company SPAR makes both the “C” Casper hot dogs and the “K” Kasper hot dogs.
PK: So there’s peace in this Armenian-American hot dog rivalry?
PR: Yeah, we all attend the same church, and we see each other at functions around the Bay Area, and our families have been friends forever — since everyone moved out from Chicago.
PK: Do you think you’ll ever merge back together into just one big happy family?
PR: I think it’s a possibility.
PR: Yeah, I would not rule it out. And we’ve talked about it before. It winds up being more complicated than it sounds, because there are so many people involved.
PK: I fondly remember going to the old flat iron Kasper’s on Telegraph (that was not part of either chain) and watching the master, Harry Yaglijian, cutting up tomatoes onions right before your eyes before putting them on the dog.
PR: Yeah, that’s definitely part of our brand, that the condiments should be cut in front of you and put right on the dog, and we still try to adhere to that. Now we sort of fudge it a little and allow them to cut up, say, one tomato and one onion just to get ahead of the rush a little bit, like before lunch, but we still try to adhere to those ideals of you should be cutting the onions and tomatoes fresh and put them right on the dog. And there’s a specific way to do that, too.
PK: Speaking of condiments, is there an age in life where you shouldn’t be putting ketchup on your hot dog?
PR: Oh, boy. I can’t go there. All I could say is when a child comes in and they don’t know what they want, I always suggest ketchup to them, because usually that’s what a kid wants on their hot dog. And I’ll just leave it at that.
PK: Wow. I’ve really touched a nerve here.
PR: Other than that, people put things on their hot dogs that I wouldn’t, but we offer them because people like them for whatever reason.
PK: I can understand why it’s difficult for you to comment. I can’t even remember the last time I put ketchup on a hot dog. And in Chicago, it’s sacrilegious to request ketchup on your hot dog.
PR: Yeah, I mean we didn’t offer ketchup until probably the ’60s or ’70s because the concept is that’s what the tomatoes are for. What do you need tomato paste, basically, on your hot dog when you have fresh tomatoes? That was probably one of the first things that got added after the four main ingredients. I imagine that was the first like, ‘Oh, all right. We’ll put ketchup in the stores.’ And then it went to cheese, and I will say that we still grate our own cheese in-house.
PK: That’s cool.
PR: Yeah, and it is a big difference. I heard this great comment. A guy said, ‘I don’t even think of putting cheese on hot dogs except when I’m at Caspers.’ Like it didn’t even occur to him to do that. But when he comes to Caspers, he always gets cheese on the hot dog, and I have to say I’m the same way.
PK: Why steam as opposed to grilling?
PR: Well, I think that’s the way it had always been done on the streets of Chicago originally and then out here. And also, steam is about as hot a heat as you can get, but the hot dogs maintain themselves a little better in the steam, I think, as opposed to on a griddle where they just start to get burned. The steamer is very even, heat-wise. It was felt that it was easier to maintain an even heat. And then there was the added plus of the steamed buns. The key to our product is those steamed buns, because you can buy Caspers packaged at Safeway, but I hear people still come to the store because they can’t properly steam the bun at home.
PK: Can you just go in and buy some steamed buns?
PR: No. Actually, though, people do come in and buy the bun with condiments because maybe they’re vegetarians or something. So we do have small but loyal following of people who do come in just for the bun and the vegetables.
PK: Can you throw them on the grill?
PR: That’s my favorite way, actually. People ask, ‘I’m at home, what do I do?’ I’ve cooked them every which way you can think, and they’ll come out great. When I’m in a rush, I’ll just microwave them for my kids. Good food is just good food no matter what.
PK: Amen, brother. Pass the mustard.
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Paul Rustigian Vital Stats
What’s your sign, man? Leo
Last Book Read: Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
Fave dog? Cheese dog with mustard and tomatoes
Fun Caspers factoids: According to Wikipedia, every time a Casper dog snaps, an angel gets its wings. And, the downtown Hayward Caspers sign is a historical landmark.
This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.