SOLON– Reggie Morrow knows a good thing when he sees it, whether it be a work of fine art, a good visual design; or the best hot dog.
A talented graphic designer and photographer, Morrow is also known for cooking up a mean hot dog. Together with business partner (and photographer/painter) Bill Ginkens, Morrow recently opened Reggie’s Weenies in downtown Solon. Located in the former Smitty’s Bar & Grill at 112 E. Main St. the café specializes in a trio of Vienna Beef hot dogs: bun size, foot-long and “The Spartan:” a 1/3 lb monster weenie loaded up with a variety of garden goodies.
“It’s a party in your mouth!” was how Ginkens (pronounced “Jenkins”), better known as “Ginks” described the beast with its relish, cucumber slices, onions, dill pickle, tomato, sport peppers and dash of celery salt.
“It’s out of control,” was one of Morrow’s assessments. After trying literally 20-30 different brands and styles of hot dog, the Vienna Beef stood above all. “It’s got a good mix of spices, it really snaps off in your mouth.” Each dog undergoes a cooking process which Morrow has perfected down to an art form in itself. From charbroiling, time on a griddle and in a steam table the “chain of events” leads to culinary perfection. Key to Reggie’s is an insistence on the freshest of bread and veggies.
“A fresh bun, hot hot dog and cool relish, there’s nothing better,” Morrow said. He noted local growers provide the veggies, the bread is ordered twice each week, and the meat is supplied by Ruzicka’s Meat Processing in Solon.
“Only three things here come out of a bag: our coffee beans, our Pepsi products and our hash browns. Everything is hand-tooled,” Morrow said. And, everything is hand-picked. Morrow tried 15 different coffees before selecting the house blend, and four or five different pancake batters. The buns are multi-grain which require a special toaster. The Reggie’s crew bakes their biscuits in-house; the gravy they pour over them is made every morning for the breakfast crowd.
Menu items include pancakes, steak and eggs, and omelets on the breakfast menu; the famous dogs, burgers and fries, Philly sandwiches from a Princeton, N.J. recipe, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Smoked turkey sandwiches and hand-blackened catfish top out the selections.
Morrow got his start at the age of 14 selling taffy at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, his native ground, for Marion and Martha Donnelly. Every year for roughly 10 years, he’d return and sell taffy for the couple. In 1984, as a freshman at the University of Iowa, he went to the football games and was surprised to only see two vendors: a guy selling gyros, and someone selling Chicago-style hot dogs. Since nachos were a “hot” item at the time, Morrow talked to the Donnellys about opening a nacho stand. Their answer would have a profound effect on his life as they talked him into selling hot dogs.
“I called my dad and told him I was going to have a hot dog stand,” Morrow recalled. “He sarcastically said ‘What are you going to call it, Reggie’s Weenies?’ I told him ‘Yes, I am!’”
Game days selling hot dogs out of a cart and long hours of studying pre-med led to a faculty/staff position in the UIHC’s organ procurement and preservation department, where Morrow became involved in many of the hospital’s first transplant operations.
The hot dog cart became popular, not only with football fans, but with Morrow’s co-workers, who often staffed the cart. It is unknown just how many people ended up buying a hot dog from a transplant surgeon, surgical technician or scrub nurse.
“Thousands have enjoyed our product,” was his best guess.
In 1996, seeking a change in life, Morrow parked the cart and went back to school for Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees. The degrees led to an adjunct professor position with the U of I followed by teaching at St. Ambrose University.
In 2001, he rented space in the former Rock Island Railroad depot in Iowa City for his design and photography studio, and brought back the cart to sell hotdogs outside. “It was fun, but not a big deal.”
After a few semesters of teaching in Florida, Iowa was calling him back, and in particular, Solon.
Having given up his office space in Iowa City, Morrow was looking for a place to locate his business. Mike Karr asked him to consider Smitty’s.
“I love it, I love older buildings,” Morrow said of the former hardware store built in 1895. Morrow and company undertook a complete renovation. “We were able to recycle everything,” he said proudly. Floors were refinished, walls repainted, new wiring and plumbing was installed, and the ceiling was taken down to reveal the original decorative tin. Old church pews serve as booths in the diner portion of the space. A private party/meeting room is available, and doubles as a photography studio. The kitchen was completely re-done with new equipment including a specially-made smoker for Reggie’s hand-carved smoked turkey sandwich.
Opening day was probably the softest “soft opening” in Solon business history.
“We put a sign in the window, stood back and shook.”
Since then, business has picked up with what Morrow calls “a wonderful return customer rate.” His staff has also grown with seven on the payroll and hopes for 20 in the future. Currently, Reggie’s is only open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, but again he hopes to expand that down the road.
“We offer a limited menu, but we try to do everything exceptionally well.”
Despite some initial snags, Morrow is happy with the way his café is progressing.
“If you love what you’re doing, it’s not work. And I love what I do. I love everything about it. Thanks to all who come in and try our food.”