Parky’s, Forest Park’s iconic hot dog stand, has been standing near the corner of Harlem and Madison since 1947. That makes it older than Burger King (1954), McDonald’s (1955) and Wendy’s (1969).
How does a family business, founded in the ’40s, survive into the 21st century? Is it the freshness of the ingredients and absence of processed food? The current operator, Sonya Flores, believes it’s due to the consistent quality, the personal service and the fact that Parky’s has become a tradition for many families.
“We have more repeaters than newcomers,” said Flores. “Kids who came with their parents come back with their dates and are now bringing their kids and grandkids.”
Flores is dedicated to keeping the Parky’s tradition alive. They are still steaming their unique hot dogs. “They are a beef and pork mixture made to order,” said Flores.
Most hot dogs sold in Chicago are Vienna all-beef sausages. In the book titled, Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog, Parky’s was the only non-Vienna hot dog mentioned. Flores will put ketchup, or anything else a customer wants, on their dog.
“We build whatever they want,” she said. “They can have a BLT dog if they want.” Her “if you build it, they will come” philosophy has kept customers coming back for more.
Parky’s hot dogs and other sandwiches all come with fries. “We’re potato pushers,” she said proudly. “The fries are the focal point.”
Potatoes are delivered to Parky’s in 50-pound bags. The stand can go through 400 pounds of potatoes in one day. Flores literally does the heavy-lifting.
“You don’t want to get hit with this arm,” she said, flexing her right bicep.
The potatoes are hand cut but no longer peeled. “The peeler was so loud,” said Flores. “Besides, they taste better with the skins and it keeps the nutrients in.” Parky’s stopped “peeling their own” in 2003.
The fries are cooked in a special high-quality grease. Flores changes the grease weekly, which is unheard of in the fast food business. (She is cursed with the ability to tell when a restaurant has been using the same grease for a month.) The fries are served in brown paper bags, the grease-soaked bag being Parky’s trademark. Flores wisely double-bags them.
The concept of having a stand that serves hot dogs and fries originated with the founder of Parky’s, Eugene Artist. He built the first Parky’s in 1946 on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. Artist’s father was an architect and came up with Parky’s futuristic design and strange color scheme. It looks like the kind of place the Jetsons would enjoy. Flores has been advised to change the aqua and orange but refuses.
Artist named his restaurant Parky’s because “parky” means hot dog in Bohemian. In 1947, he opened his second Parky’s at 329 S. Harlem. He tried selling custard for three months, before reverting to his tried-and-true menu. Flores’ parents, Olga and Benjamin Flores, bought both of the stands from Artist.
Flores got much of her strength and determination from her mother, who at various times did automotive body work, drove a semi and taught Spanish. Olga is retired now and Flores bought out her share. Benjamin still insists on coming in to pick up money and shout instructions.
In 1995, the Flores family sold the Roosevelt Road location.
Although Parky’s started out selling hot dogs, fries, polish and tamales, they’ve added Italian beef and sausage and burgers. They have always operated on a strictly cash basis. This keeps prices down for customers. “You can feed a family of four for under $20,” Flores says proudly, “We want some of your money, not all of it.”
Parky’s has always been family-friendly. They actually paved their own alley to allow customers easy in-and-out access. Flores was proud they had their alley plowed down to bare pavement a few hours after the Super Bowl blizzard.
During warm weather, Parky’s provides a comfortable outdoor seating area. It is shaded by a tree and customers linger. “I see them chatting and reading,” Flores said, “I’ve seen friendships form.” Wedding parties even come to Parky’s to take pictures.
“We are blessed to be on this corner,” she said and also blessed to be in Forest Park. “I love Forest Park,” she declared. “The people are great here.” Flores is such a familiar local figure, cars beep at her and people call out, “Hot Dog Lady!” or “Ms. Parky!”
The feisty 36-year-old enjoys the work. “I love being here, interacting with all walks of life — CTA workers, hospital workers, businessmen and blue collar workers.” Flores is such a rabid White Sox fan, she’s been called the “Mouth of the South.”
“I tell Cubs fans to go to the back of the line with the Packer fans.”
Her workers are as passionate as the proprietor. Sharon McCauley has only taken three days off in 20 years. They had to force her to leave when she was having a baby.
As much as Flores enjoys her longtime customers, she is trying to attract the younger generation. To this end, she started a Facebook page and carefully monitors it. “I’ll return a message, even if it’s 1 a.m.”
It will also help when her humble hot dog stand is featured on “Chicago’s Best.” Brittney Payton hosts the segment showcasing the best Italian sausage and fries. It will air on WGN on April 12, after the 9 p.m. news.
Not that Parky’s isn’t already famous.
“My dad was in the Dominican Republic wearing his Parky’s shirt and a couple recognized it,” she testified. Another Forest Parker related she was attending a business meeting in Los Angeles where a transplanted Chicagoan couldn’t stop talking about Parky’s.
Her dream is to franchise Parky’s and open three more locations. As the “Hot Dog Lady” already knows, if she builds it, they will come.