LAWRENCE — A gastronomic battle is shaping up between warring hot-dog stands, and it appears the real winner in this epic battle may be frankfurter aficionados of the Merrimack Valley.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, New Hampshire businessman Mike Graffeo hopes to reopen the old Lawton's Famous Frankfurters stand at the corner of Canal Street and Broadway. But the historic 80-year-old establishment will be under a new name, "Lawrence Famous Frankfurters." And it will sell more than just hotdogs.
"We've invested a lot of money," said Graffeo. "It's the right thing to do for Lawrence. There's a hunger out there for hot dogs and we're going to fill it."
The person managing the new operation, Glen Vetreno of GKK Concessions, will also be selling sausages, along with salad wraps and other fare, in addition to items from the old menu, such as chicken barbecue and lobster rolls.
But to Joanne Curley, previous manager and owner of the old hot dog stand, the move sounds suspiciously like a pre-emptive strike against her new venture. She is planning on opening a new restaurant across town, at the corner of South Union and Jamaica streets, which will be called "Lawton's Famous Frankfurters." The building has been designed as an almost exact replica of the old structure, just a little wider and with a more modern interior.
"We walked away (from the old location)," she admitted yesterday. "And now he's deliberately doing this and I'm taking it personally. I've been crying for two days."
She said she is still working on getting financing to purchase the Jamaica Street property, and that a ground breaking is a month or two away.
Meanwhile, Graffeo said he hopes to open his hot dog stand in the next couple of weeks.
"She gave up on that corner and this is sour grapes," he said. "We're trying to remain positive. Our hands are tied. It's a historic landmark. We can't change anything on the exterior."
He added, "It is what it is. It's a very tiny building on a small piece of land on a busy corner."
The differences between Curley and Graffeo have been ongoing.
When Curley and her husband entered into a deal with Graffeo several years ago, they thought they had purchased the building and the property. Graffeo, on the other hand, contends that he simply leased them the property to run the business, something he had done with previous tenants.
Then the Curleys went through a series of setbacks, with the building's septic tank failing due to settling of the embankment that the restaurant sits on. There was even fear that the entire building, which looks like an old-fashioned diner, could slide into the North Canal.
An army of engineers and construction specialists descended upon the location. AT&T and Verizon, which had done underground utility work and pole replacement in the area that was blamed for weakening the embankment, spent thousands of dollars shoring up the sidewalk and land under the building. A new septic tank was installed. But the business had to be shut down for extended periods of time.
Work on the nearby Falls Bridge and intersection adjacent to the take-out joint reduced traffic flow to the neighborhood, further decreasing business for the Curleys and cutting into their profits.
And the Enel Corp., which owns the canal and the canal wall, said it was planning a major wall-reconstruction project that could have temporarily shut down the business once again.
So, with the help and support of city leaders, the Curleys decided to throw in the towel and move to another spot in the city.
Curley said yesterday that she has gotten approvals from the city for the new restaurant but is just waiting for financing.
She said that Graffeo, meanwhile, has put up new signs that closely mimick the old signs, even using some of the same images and words.
Her fear is that people will think the reopened establishment is actually Lawton's. "I think he's doing it to deceive everyone," she said.
But Graffeo counters that the best use for the building is as a hot dog stand and that he can't make many changes to the exterior without city approval. He said he tried selling the building, but it's a tough location in a tough real estate market.
He noted that he's not stealing her recipes, but that the new manager actually is "more of a sausage guy" who has sausage stands all over Boston. When asked if he thought there was room enough in the city for two, similar hot dog stands, he noted, "She's closed. There's not two. There's only one. It's all good."