ST. LOUIS — It was an afternoon game against Milwaukee and the line near Busch Stadium snaked down the sidewalk.
Cardinals fans waited for Karen Boschert's hot dogs, brats and burgers at K's Unique Dogs near the corner of 8th and Walnut. The O'Fallon resident has been a food fixture there during baseball season since 1998.
"Buy it out here! Take it in!" she shouted to pedestrians and traffic.
Karen, 45, runs the stand with her husband, Kelly, who was at his other job that day, security at O'Fallon Township High School. They've been married since 2005.
Back 16 years, she was the manager of a St. Louis restaurant, and through a customer's connections heard about a hot dog stand for sale.
"I was a single mom then and I bought it for $5,000 and a handshake," she said. "I thought it would be a good way to make some extra money."
She started with her stand at 10th and Walnut, then moved down Walnut to 8th Street when the new stadium opened in 2006.
It's not exactly paradise, what with a wide concrete sidewalk that seriously heats up in August, no legal parking in front and one medium-size shade tree. But, it's a primo spot for selling food: just north of the MetroLink station, steps from the entrance to the west parking garage and across the street from the stadium.
"The All-Star Parade went right by," she said of the 2009 event.
Karen pays the city and the Cardinals for the location. It's the same arrangement for other licensed vendors who are selling goods within a certain radius around the ballpark. "It's up to them if I stay here," she said of the ballclub. She's mum on the annual cost.
A team effort
With a 12:45 p.m. weekday game, Karen and her team rolled up to the curb with the trailer, double-parked, got the first stages of the stand set up and had the vehicles gone and the food going by 10:30 a.m.
Father-in-law Tom Boschert fired up the twin grills that hang off either side of the stainless-steel stand. Tiffany Hubbard separated hot dog buns into foil wrappers while Kim Blackmon flipped burgers on the center griddle. Both employees live in St. Louis.
"Am I too early for breakfast?" a regular joked as he walked by and saw the flurry of activity.
Karen laughed as he promised to return later. "He has a reservation here. He dines frequently."
Still, she sold the first dog of the day before 11.
"Now, it's hot. I just took it off the grill," she said to Brian Small, 48, of St. Louis.
Juan Arguelles, also of O'Fallon, works about half the games for Karen. Two pop-up tents covered the work area and Juan started hanging menu boards on the sides and staking signs in the ground under a tree for traffic to see.
He winced as Karen belted out her spiel from the other side of the counter, covered in a red-and-white cloth.
"We send her down 20 to 30 feet, she gets so loud!" he said.
Karen is tireless and organized. She also works as a server and in the office at Lottawatta Creek in Fairview Heights. There are three kids in the mix, too, ages 15, 18 and 23.
"We do some things ahead of time -- there's a lot of cutting," Karen said, pointing to containers at the front table filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and more. Bottles of condiments stood in another container, ready for squirting. Back near the grill are holders for sauerkraut and cheese sauce and a warming pan.
Before weekday games, she shoots emails to businesses surrounding the ballpark to let people know she'll be set up and serving.
"About 11, we'll get lunch people, then steadily get baseball," she said. "By 12, we'll be slammed."
As if on cue at 11:30, two women in business suits and heels placed orders and left with brown paper bags.
"I don't know if I can wait," said Merle Samuel as she stuck her nose in the bag and inhaled.
Karen knows how to maintain loyalty with quality, price and personality.
Tom deftly turned each of the first batch of 40 all-beef Vienna hot dogs browning nicely on the grill. He would make 200 to 250 that day. On the other grill, Kim tended to the bratwursts.
"We get special requests for burnt dogs and brats," she said. And they comply.
St. Louisans prefer their meat grilled.
"People don't like steamed dogs here," said Karen, who's originally from Dalton, south of Chicago. "On the busiest day in summer, we'll do 350 dogs and 300 brats."
A big selling point for the stand is "whatever they buy here, they can take into the stadium," Karen pointed out.
Top dogs are the Chicago (mustard, relish, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, celery salt and sport peppers) and the St. Louis (bacon and cheese sauce). Brats can get slathered in sauerkraut, too, if that's what you want.
Similar food inside Busch is twice the price. At K's Unique Dogs, you get a $3 to $3.50 hot dog, $3 bratwurst, $4 hamburger, plus $2 to $4 for water, soda and bags of peanuts. For $5, you get the meal deal: a dog or brat, chips and a drink.
"Never raised my prices," Karen said proudly, sealing foil shut on a Chicago dog, then placing it in a paper bag. "People asked why I didn't raise them during the World Series and I said, 'You come to see me year-round, why would I gouge you?'"
Just remember to get your food before the game begins because K's Unique Dogs packs up and is gone by the third inning.
Pat and Tom Gates, of Warson Woods, are regulars. They sat on nearby steps and ate an early lunch.
"This is the best stand around," said Tom as he wiped his mouth. "They have good food, good prices and nice people."
Karen and her team don't mind being good ambassadors for the city, either.
"Besides hot dogs, we give directions to tourists," Juan said. "It's their first time here and it's, 'Where's Kiener Plaza? Where's this? Where's that? We don't mind. People from Norway stopped and chowed down last week."
Particular baseball fans from out of town get a little something extra with their food.
"When Chicago's in town, we talk trash with them," said Juan with a grin. "We razz Milwaukee, too."
There's no serious namecalling, though. Except when people see Karen.
"People don't know my name, but they see me and say, 'That's the Hot Dog Lady!'"