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Barry Nemerow dies; co-founded hot dog stand that slings abuse

Barry Nemerow (left) and Larry Gold co-founded the famed Wiener's Circle hot dog stand at 2622 N. Clark. | provided photo

Barry Nemerow co-founded a hot dog stand that offers Chicago’s delicious “garden on a bun” with trash talk on the side.

Mr. Nemerow, 60, who died of cancer on Wednesday, was a former owner of Wiener’s Circle, 2622 N. Clark St. He and partner Larry Gold started it in 1983. It’s known for the unprintable verbal abuse employees sling at patrons — who dish it right back — with anatomical impossibilities and insults that may cover several generations of a recipient’s family.

Footage of workers and customers yelling at each other has been featured on TV’s Food Network, the Travel Channel, “The Rachael Ray Show” and a brief reality program on TruTV. Conan O’Brien sent Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to Wiener’s Circle to match insults with the staff.

The interaction between African-American staffers and the stand’s largely white clientele has sometimes drawn accusations of minstrelry. It may seem rough, but many of Mr. Nemerow’s employees have remained at Wiener’s Circle for 25 years or more because of his kindness, manager Evelyn Morris said.

She wept as she recounted how he paid for the 1993 funeral of her 10-year-old daughter, Clineshia Morris, after a struggle with kidney disease. When Morris went to the funeral home, she was overwhelmed by the expense and decisions. “Barry told me stop crying, ‘I will pay that bill.’ And he did,” she said.

“He was such a great boss,” Morris said. “A friend, an uncle, a father figure.”

The Wiener’s Circle, 2622 N. Clark St., is known for the insults employees dole out to patrons. | Google Streetview
The Wiener’s Circle, 2622 N. Clark St., is known for the insults employees dole out to patrons. | Google Streetview

Young Barry grew up in Skokie and always loved hot dogs, Gold said. While attending Evanston Township High School, he worked at another encased-meat institution, Herm’s on Dempster.

When they first considered buying the Clark Street property 33 years ago, it was a characterless food stand with a mini-arcade of ’80s video games like Pac-Man and Frogger. “The yuppies hadn’t moved in yet. There were street people and hookers,” Gold said.

But the parking lot made it attractive.

They tore out the old grill and games and installed counters. They asked Poochie’s founder Harvey Bernstein for help. He shared his suppliers and recipe for cheese fries and advised them on a broiler, Gold said. Mr. Nemerow worked days and Gold worked nights. “We never fought,” he said.

With a quality product, success came quickly. “Word by mouth spread so fast, it was like the Internet,” Gold said. They expanded to Las Vegas.

“Everything was fine until [Barry] got sick” four years ago, he said. That contributed to their decision to sell Wiener’s Circle last year to five investors, including Ari Levy of the Levy restaurant family.

The two partners also invested in Jeff Greenfield’s Redhot Ranch franchise, with locations near Belmont and Lincoln and Armitage and Western, and Greenfield’s 35th Street Red Hots near Sox Park. Gold said Mr. Nemerow was a part-owner of Chris’s Billiards, the Milwaukee Avenue pool hall featured in “The Color of Money.”

Mr. Nemerow liked horses and once worked as a trainer at several area racetracks, where he met his wife, Vickie, Gold said.

He was a dream of a boss. “He always had patience,” Gold said. “Everybody loved him.” Since there wasn’t any room at Wiener’s Circle, if employees wanted to confide in him or hash out a conflict, he convened with them in the walk-in cooler.

One of Chicago’s oldest hot dog stands, Superdawg, created in 1948, posted condolences on Facebook, calling Mr. Nemerow “A true Chicago dog man.”

“He was a very nice guy,” said Superdawg owner Don Drucker, who appeared with Barry Nemerow in a Chicago hot dog segment on “The Rachael Ray Show.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Nemerow also is survived by a sister, Terry Leavitt. A brother, Ronald, died before him. A funeral service is planned at 11 a.m. Friday at Chicago Jewish Funerals, 8851 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Gold said a casual memorial is being organized at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street.