Not another hot dog joint, Fast Track closes in West Loop
Open for more than 30 years and loved deeply by the hundreds of regulars who showed up Wednesday for one last bite, the site is the proposed home of an eight-story residential building.
Utter the words “That hot dog joint is closing down” and most Chicagoans will stop what they’re doing and pay attention.
But Fast Track, under the shadow of the Green Line at Lake and Des Plaines, seemed to hold an especially rare and tender place in the hearts of regulars who showed up by the hundreds Wednesday — its last day in business.
After a five-second hug with a longtime customer, grill man Alex Aleman said “I love these people. These people are my family” before tears halted the conversation and he escaped back behind the counter.
Eddie Tefka opened Fast Track in 1991 because he didn’t have anywhere to eat lunch while running his gas station and car repair shop down the street.
He bought the property a decade earlier to eliminate the competition of a competing gas station.
With his hold on gasoline sales in the area cemented, he rented the newly acquired space to a landscape architect until he outgrew the space and left.
Thus sprang Tefka’s railroad-themed hot dog joint. Railcar wheels and a crossing gate hemmed in the patio outside, a model train cruised the interior and workers from nearby warehouses and factories — before the area became posh — gobbled up Polishes and hand-cut fries.
“We were blessed with great customers and employees who related and enjoyed their jobs. It was like family,” said Tefka, 71.
“We’d stay open late for the nightclub crowds and have live music, singers, dancers. There were no residents in this area. It was all commercial, so at night there was nobody to complain.”
Fast Track got a boost in its early days when Dolly Parton filmed a scene for her movie “Straight Talk” at the eatery.
“I straightened her out from the beginning, that I do have a brain and I’m not just a hunk of meat. She knew where I was coming from,” Tefka said.
“Athletes used to come in because of the proximity to the United Center and Oprah Winfrey used to order all the time for her and her crew ... that’s before she was with Weight Watchers,” said Tefka, who grew up in Skokie and lives in Northfield.
Chery Quinn, 63, who lives about a block away, said Fast Track has literally sustained her life.
“I have been eating here for 10 years,” the former paralegal said. “And three years ago when I got diagnosed with stage four cancer, I started going through chemo and I couldn’t eat anything without getting violently ill ... except for this food. So consequently I have been eating here every single day for the last three and a half years.”
She is especially fond of Kleo Kleopa, the eatery’s resident comedian and general manager.
“And Kleo, he is the epitome of what a man should be. Kind, conscientious, on the ball with orders and a mind like a steel trap,” Quinn said. “In this day and age everyone’s got a cellphone and we’ve lost touch. You wanna get friendly and spiritual guidance or love, this is the kind of place you come.”
Tefka said business was down dramatically during COVID-19, but because he owned the building, he was able to keep his doors open.
Why sell then? “It was just time,” he said.
Tefka didn’t share the price he got — or who he sold to.
According to Ald. Brendan Reilly’s website, plans are in the works for an eight-story building that would contain retail and amenity space at ground level and 49 residential units above.