Our History

THE Original Polish Sausage Stand from Maxwell Street

Ira Berkow wrote a book about the history of Maxwell Street. One chapter was dedicated to Jimmy.

It is reprinted below...

Jimmy Stefanovic, owner of the thriving hot-dog stand on the northwest corner of Halsted and Maxwell, was born on July 11, 1901, in Gostivar, Macedonia, Yugoslavia. ("Was that time Turkish rule in our country.") He came to America in 1939, landing in New York harbor with seven dollars in his pocket. The customs official said, "Lucky seven." Jimmy, who spoke no English repeated respectfully, "Lucky seven. Lucky seven." Jimmy traveled first to an uncle in Detroit. He asked his uncle, "What means this, 'Lucky seven'?" The uncle explained. Jimmy took it as an omen. Jimmy is husky, pouchy, pale, mild-tempered. He arrives at the stand each morning at about eleven and enters at the rear where he has an office and where the bags of onions are plopped, the Polish sausages and Vienna hot dogs and hamburgers and pork chops are stored, the barrels of pickles and peppers are kept, and the cases of soda pop are stacked. It is from here that he orchestrates his twenty-five employees at this twenty-four-hour-a-day stand which, at peak hours, may have forty or fifty customers jamming up to its steamy open windows. At seven-thirty each evening, he slips off his white apron, tugs into his jacket or coat, pushes a fedora on to his baldish head and walks out to the corner where his chauffeur-driven Cadillac awaits.

"I grow up in Russia, in Kamenets Podolsky, where my father have candy manufacturing business," said Jimmy, seated at a table in the back of the hot-dog stand. "And that's when first time I hear Chicago. One old man named Faranya work as a chauffeur for my father. He drive the buggy with the horses. I ride all the time with him. He like whiskey. I give him always a nickel to buy bottle. I am nine, ten years old. He drink one gulp, finish bottle. He was once in Chicago. He tell me, 'You young boy. You go over there to Chicago. Over there is future.' And I put it in my head and I never take it out, Chicago.

"There come the time the Revolution-- 1919. That time in Russia was very bad. The Russian Red Army was retreating through our town. Two blocks south already was Rumanian Army. When the Russians retreat, they rob the stores. Break the stores and everything. They come to our store. My brother Daniel is fifteen and he say to them, 'What kind liberty you give? You criminals. You steal. You not give liberty.' "Then we left Russia in a hurry. Left everything behind. We want to travel to Rumanian border and get to Yugoslavia. It is twenty-five kilometers away, but we walk through forest for a hundred days. Why so long? We was sitting here three days, after one mile five days, after two miles five days. You cannot go through. They was fighting, fighting. War, fighting. Oh, guns! No stop. Night and day. My three sisters, two brothers and mother and father and my uncle and me. We get to the border and stay forty days in the forest. We meet a Frenchman, a Chinese, and one Italian, who is famous violinist. We hide together. We wait for moon to get dark. And we eat only green corn that we steal. They call it carroosa. And then we are able to get bread. Across in Rumania near the border is a town where there are men who did business with my father. So now, my uncle has a big dog, name Dooruff. My uncle shave him like a sheep except for around the neck, so he look like a lion. The dog was trained good. So smart this dog. He understand everything what you say to him. He used to go with the buggy from our town in Russia to Rumania. He knows the way. My father take Dooruff, put message around his neck and with some gold pieces, and tell him, 'Go to friends in Rumanian town across the river and get bread.' "Before you know it, Dooruff swims back with basket of bread around his neck. We take the bread all wet and dry it in the sun. He do this twenty, twenty-five times. Our whole family eat, and the Frenchman and the Chinese and the Italian eat. Dooruff save our life.

"All the time dog was going, we hear shooting. One night Dooruff comes back, he has blood all over. They shot the dog. He return to us and then he lay down. Everybody was cry. And my uncle, 'Oh, they killed the dog. Son-of-a-bitches,' and this and that. He died, dog. We make grave, everything. Everybody was in his funeral. Italian man play the violin. Everybody was sorry for dog."

The Stefanovic family eventually crossed the river in a canoe into Rumania. The other men did not leave the forest yet. The Frenchman asked Jimmy to take a letter with him and mail it when he got to Yugoslavia. Jimmy put it in his boot. When the Rumanians searched Jimmy, he tried to say his boots were so tight they wouldn't come off; he was afraid the letter just might get him in trouble. "But two soldiers try to get boot off," said Jimmy. "I pulled my foot. It hurt so much. Finally I lose my foot and the soldiers fall down over there and I fall down in the middle of the room. They see the letter. 'We gonna kill him,' they say. 'Shoot! He's a spy!' But they wait. They take me to jail. Prison full of people who are communists. The Rumanians kill the communists like fly over there. When I see this I say, 'What the hell. Good-by my friends and family.' They call me. I am ready to die. But I am taken to the commandant. He says he knows my father, asks about the letter. I tell him. He let go of me.

"In my mind is still Chicago. After I come home, I apply for passport at American consul. They tell me immigration is now strict. Yugoslav quota nine hundred people yearly. And he tell me we got sixteen thousand in line already. He say, 'When I put your name, you have to wait at least twenty years. Maybe fifteen years, if somebody die.' I figure, 'What the hell, it cost me nothing,' and I put my name down. They say, 'Okay, when time come, we gonna call you.' And I forget about it.

"I go to Bucharest, Rumania. There is a big marketplace, like Maxwell Street. Two thousand people come in a day. I open up a candy and ice cream store, like my father had. But they don't like foreign people. They say, 'Rumania for Rumanians.' So I go back to Belgrade. I work with my family.

"One day I get letter from American consul. It is 1939. I say, 'What do they want with me?' I forget altogether. Fifteen, sixteen years. My number come up and I can get visa. And it's one month time they give to decide. Now, I have one brother-in-law from my first wife, who had died. He come back from America. He say it is Depression times. 'What the hell, peoples in America not working.' He said, 'You got good job here. Stay.' I was making six dollars a day in Belgrade. He say in America the best people make only six dollars a week! Everybody was counter for me to go. I say, I kid with myself, 'After sixteen years, I cannot renounce.' But also I see the newspaper. 'Hitler take Czechoslovakia.' 'Hitler take Prague.' 'Hitler take Vienna.' Hitler. Hitler. I see Mussolini take Albania. I say to family, 'Now is time to go. Now is trouble. You see yourself. I gonna go over there. In case you get in trouble, I gonna help you.' "I got to Chicago, 'where I have an aunt. At first I sell on street corners what they call-- Affy Taples? Tappy Affles?” Taffy Apples? “Taffy Apples.” Jimmy saved $280 in three months. His aunt owned the hot-dog stand on Maxwell and Halsted. She was sickly, didn't care much for the stand. Jimmy saw a future in it much brighter than the taffy-apple business. He borrowed money from friends and relatives and bought the stand from his aunt. I asked how he built it up, from a small business with five or six employees to a minor empire. "I build like this: Take care of the stuff; give fresh stuff; no put too much; no fry too much; be nice to people. Somebody no like, I take back; I give money back, and I throw this away; I never sell it again. And like this. I never buy cheap stuff. "I learn that in marketplace in Bucharest. I want best vanilla ice cream. Salesman come find say, 'Sell it to you for ten cents.' I say, 'I pay twelve cents and I don't want no water in it.' Competitors think I am crazy. But soon I work eight hours a day and make five thousand a week. They work twelve hours and make one thousand a week.

"My trade now come from all over. Only make one-fourth from around Maxwell Street. Maxwell Street hot dog is famous all over the world now. Example: Man stop and say, 'I heard about your sandwich in Vietnam.' When he was discharged he come from San Francisco to New York and make special stop for pork chop and hot dog on Maxwell.

"People say, 'Oh, the smell of the hot dog on Maxwell is so special. How come it is?' Keep fresh water. Watch the fire is just right. When you take care, you gonna smell good ones. When you keep too long, you not gonna smell nothing but burnt."

Jimmy has three sons and a daughter in America, all in their twenties. The boys worked at the stand briefly, but he says, "I took them off."

"They too naïve," he said. "For example, I gonna tell you some story like this: A guy, he say, 'Listen, Joe, keep this package here. I gonna come back in an hour.' Now my son could make close friendship with this man. Maybe in the package is dope. Or he say, 'Joe, take this package for me for favor to Roosevelt Road and this and that.' They do it. You see, it is dangerous. They can make bad friends. From bad neighborhood, you see, you cannot find good friends here."

In recent years, Jimmy has suffered various internal ailments. He has spent a number of weeks in the hospital, and then recuperated in his spacious Oak Park home. He has also suffered some distress of the heart. Several years ago he helped bring over two nephews from Yugoslavia. He brought them into his business. Without consulting him, they took the newly learned know-how and opened first one hot-dog stand down the street, and then a second. And sometimes even when Jimmy was in earshot, they might mimic the old strong man growing sickly. Jimmy does not speak about this.

But his business, nonetheless, still thrives. And it is still open all day and all night.

"Ah, is too many reasons why we open all night," he said. "When you keep closed, they break inside, they steal everything. One time I closed, they steal a hundred twenty cases of pop from in the back. Nighttime here on the corner is dead when we be closed. When we open, traffic little bit is. Truckmen stop. Buy a hot dog. Or milkman coming, buying pork chop. Or policeman come and buying soda. Or somebody else come and want three can soda or something. You see, when I'm open, corner is life."

Ira Berkow, "Jimmy Stefanovic," Maxwell Street, Survival in a Bazaar, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1977 (pp. 493-497)