If you’re not a fan of hot dogs smothered in cream cheese and grilled onions, this story may not be for you.
(Also, how dare you???)
However, if you’re a fan of an incredible story of a hard-working, kind man whose life was forever changed by the Sounders FC Relief Fund, then you should keep reading.
In September 2011, I had just started my freshman year of college and spent the first couple weeks doing what I moved to Seattle to do: go to as many pro sporting events as possible. I was strolling down Occidental Avenue, completely in awe that this was now my home, and stopped with a friend to get a hot dog on the way to the stadium. My friend didn’t have any cash and I only had a $5 bill. I approached the vendor, a tough-looking guy with a fitted black t-shirt, held up my cash and said “Do you have a poor college student’s special, 2 for $5?” He laughed, agreed and hooked us up with two delicious dogs.
A few months later, at the start of the new baseball season, I came by again. If it worked once, surely I had to press my luck. Shockingly, he remembered me and gave me my special discount. I went back again and again and again. The legend of “Danny’s Hot Dog Guy” grew among my friends – we visited him before and after games all throughout college and into post-grad adulthood. A familiar face that soon turned into a friendship.
Joe Bernstein stands in front of his Joe's Grilled Gourmet Dogs banner | Photo courtesy of Joe Bernstein
In my early years of working for the Sounders, I would spend hours printing copies and setting up the press box on matchday. The highlight? My quick trip to visit Joe and grab a hot dog. He was always so proud to see the kid he met a few years earlier achieve the goals he set in his career.
I know I am not alone in this. For so many of us, he has been a constant presence and fundamental to our Seattle sports experience. While my hot dog tastes have certainly changed – I shudder at the fact my early days visiting Joe only featured ketchup, much less a true 'Seattle Dog' – there is not a place I would rather go for a comfort snack than Joe’s Grilled Gourmet Dogs on Occidental Ave.
This past March, Joe Bernstein had just begun a trip of a lifetime. Bernstein and his wife, along with their two neighbors, were off to Mexico to stay at a resort. It was the first time in 40 years that Bernstein was going to leave the country. He had it all planned out, too: eat, drink and relax in the sun, then come back home and prepare for the busy spring season at his hot dog stand.
“It was the beginning of the ‘real season,’” Bernstein said. “The beginning of spring, the beginning of Sounders, there was Supercross and there’s the [XFL team, the Seattle] Dragons. Then there’s the opening day of Mariners five days later with the double-game on Saturday of Sounders, and then Monster Truck Jam after Supercross, that was the beginning of the season. I was all set.”
As one of the street food vendors on Occidental Avenue just outside the gates of CenturyLink Field and T-Mobile Park, Bernstein’s income is solely dependent on foot traffic in the neighborhood. Luckily for him, though, there are hundreds of events each year between sports at the two stadiums, shows at the CenturyLink Field Event Center and concerts at WaMu Theater.
Then, in an instant, it all stopped. Bernstein was crushed.
“I landed in Mexico and turned on my phone, and that’s the day at 10 o’ clock in the morning that we went into lockdown and my business was closed,” Bernstein said. “I thought I was in a movie.”
Bernstein smiles for the camera behind his menu board, displaying hot dogs named after iconic Sounders figures
That same day back in Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation that limited large events to minimize the public health risk caused by COVID-19. With this news, Bernstein’s small business, Joe’s Grilled Gourmet Dogs, screeched to a complete halt.
“The first week, I had no idea – I had no clue what to do,” Bernstein said. “I cried every day. My paycheck stopped.”
If there is one particular trait that Bernstein prides himself in, it’s his work ethic. He’s a one-man band when it comes to his business and has been known to put in 40-hour shifts during event-filled weekends. The owner of Joe’s Grilled Gourmet Dogs for over 20 years, Bernstein bought a hot dog cart for $3,000 at the insistence of his father, whose first job was at a Nathan’s stand on Coney Island.
“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til you lose it,” Bernstein said. “Everybody always says, ‘Man you’ve got a cool job.’ And I know I got a cool job. I’m pretty damn lucky.”
When he returned from Mexico, Bernstein immediately drove down to his stand to grab all of his equipment, supplies and belongings from Occidental Ave., not knowing when he would be able to return. To help stay afloat financially, Bernstein managed to get a temporary, entry-level job at Costco, where his youngest of three children works. He also began selling t-shirts and tote bags that featured his tagline “Would you look at the size of this one!”
It still wasn’t enough. With his operations suspended for the indefinite future, Bernstein needed more assistance as soon as possible. He applied for some grants through the city of Seattle but didn’t have any luck.
Then he heard about the Sounders FC Relief Fund through a friend. This relief fund stated that it was going to support small businesses around CenturyLink Field that were directly affected by not having events due to COVID-19.
“I told my landlord, it seems like it was written for me,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein kept it simple. As he explains, he didn’t “say his sob story” in the application process, but just listed the fixed costs that needed a financial bump, such as his rent and health permit. Within two weeks, he received the good news.
“I got the email that you guys gave me and you gave me money to pay my rent. I’m so embarrassed and humble and grateful,” Bernstein said. “I own everything for my business… You guys paid my rent, you saved my life. This is my life. Without my business, I have no life.”
Kyle Shields (left), a member of Emerald City Supporters, poses with Bernstein (right) at his stand | Photo courtesy of Kyle Shields
The friend who told Joe about the relief fund? Kyle Shields. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve definitely seen (or heard) him. He is a capo for the Emerald City Supporters, an independent supporters group, and is often seen leading the chants and displays from the elevated stand in front of the section. His relationship with Bernstein goes back nearly 20 years, when he started driving from his hometown of Yakima to attend Seattle sporting events.
Whether it’s a visit to the hot dog stand several hours before the match, an acknowledgement while marching by with fellow supporters or a quick snack after the final whistle, Shields has made sure Bernstein is central to his matchday routine.
“He’s been part of everyone’s Seattle sports experience for so long,” Shields said. “It’s engrained. It’s not a Sounders matchday without Joe and his hot dogs. I am really happy this will keep him going and it will help him out.”
A few years ago, Shields took it up a notch. After exciting, high-energy matches, he and his friends from the supporters’ section didn’t want the party to end. In a tradition that carries on to the present, a group of ECS members visit Joe’s stand post-match for “victory dogs.” They will be yelling, cheering, singing and eating, and it’s an element of the Sounders community that Bernstein deeply appreciates. And misses.
Members of ECS celebrate a big win with some victory dogs at Joe's hot stand | Photo courtesy of Kyle Shields
“The family atmosphere, the whole thing, it’s always like a magical day,” Bernstein said. “You got the march that goes down, stops by my stand and takes a left. Everything from the people marching to the festivities, it’s unlike any other sport.”
We don’t know when, but eventually Sounders matchday will return to normalcy. The march will go down Occidental Ave., ECS will lead the stadium in epic chants and songs, and our team will take the field to create memories that last a lifetime. During that entire day, Joe’s Grilled Gourmet Dogs will be ready to serve you a hot dog. If you time it right, maybe you can grab a victory dog with Shields, too.
“This was my last try,” Bernstein said. “I filled out the application and I had a good feeling about the Sounders. I just did… They care about their fans so much, that they’re willing to keep my business afloat so I can still sell hot dogs, so their fans have the same experience when they come back.”
Thank you, Joe. We can’t wait to see you again soon.
(For more updates on Joe, you can view his Facebook page HERE)