You can only visit the Famous River Hot Dog Man by inner tube or by boat. The nearest access to the river is about a mile upstream, and the Delaware is swifter than it looks, so you can't just hop in the water and paddle over. Halfway through a five-hour float down the river, the Hot Dog Man is less a dining destination than an essential rest stop for tubers enjoying a lazy afternoon. Which is why, on a recent August weekend, I found myself hitching a ride on a motor boat to the New Jersey Bank of the river, waiting for the Hot Dog Man himself, Greg Crance, to ferry me to his floating business.
The Hot Dog Man's fame is mostly limited to a handful of towns around where the Delaware River divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania. But the homely little restaurant does have this going for it: It's the only floating hot dog stand on the Delaware, or, for that matter, just about anywhere. And then there's Crance himself, who, with over 29 years in the freshwater hot dog business, has embraced the title of The Hot Dog Man as heartily as he embraces the thousands of rowdy tubers who come drifting toward his stand every day from June to mid-September. Call him the Doug Sohn of the Delaware.
Crance buzzes up to shore in a dandelion yellow boat. He's 50, with bristly, barely greying hair and a tan like a Florida fisherman. He is also, as he's quick to mention, a very large man, which he always explains with the same joke: "I needed room to fit all my muscles." He's a natural salesman: gregarious, talkative, always ready with a joke.
It's a bright, flawless day with high, billowy clouds, the banks of the river walled in by green, and the water running clear and slow but strong. Fat inner tubes in bright pinks, yellows, and blues string out in both directions, ferrying families with young kids and clusters of twentysomethings. Between the shouting, the splashing, the lost flip flops, the water guns, and the coolers of beer in tow, you'd expect plenty of noise, but the trees and river swallow the bulk of the party. You could, as Greg points out, float down the river completely alone and undisturbed, but hardly anyone does. For most, tubing is a backyard party, only mobile and waterlogged.
Tubing down this stretch of the river, just south of Frenchtown, New Jersey, has been a local pastime for decades, and has only grown in popularity thanks to companies that now provide inner tubes and transportation back upstream. Nowadays, between locals and tri-state area tourists, thousands of people come tubing through these parts every day of summer. Crance, a native Pennsylvanian who's been tubing the river since he was a kid, says he now sells around 5,000 hot dogs on a good day.
He opened the Famous River Hot Dog Man in 1987, at age 21, after finishing four years of active duty in the Marine Corps. The idea came from an older friend who owned a tiny island in the middle of the river and thought it could use an "oasis" of sorts, where tubers could stop and get a bite to eat. "So I can't take credit for the idea," Crance says, "but I can take credit for seeing it through," which, considering his business is unreachable by car, without electricity, and only open three months a year, hasn't been easy.
The stand started out on shore, but was forced to become a river-faring operation in 1992 because, as Crance explains it, the state "didn't have a way to permit us," on land. Afloat, as a sort of state fair stall atop pontoons (which were later swapped out for a flat plastic barge), it was "essentially a high-volume catering business," and easier for the Health Department to regulate. At first Crance was sure that running a hot dog stand off a boat would be "a pain," but it turned out to be "a godsend." A floating hot dog stand is a novelty, and novelty attracts customers.
We weave between clusters of tubers as we jet towards the hot dog stand, and all of them wave as we go by. Crance gets on his PA system and starts calling out with the enthusiasm of a variety show emcee, "Tuuuuubers. The Hot Dog Man is open, tubers. Alright, alright, alright! Start paddling right! Don't miss the best part of the trip." A big sign emerging from the greenery on shore reiterates in block letters:
HOT DOG MAN PADDLE RIGHT NEXT ISLAND
A few minutes later, around 1:30, we tie up to the hot dog stand, which occupies two white plastic barges anchored just off shore. One, a "kitchen" of sorts, holds stacks of coolers and a propane-powered flattop, where Crance's wife, Megumi, and one of his four sons, Matthew, are flipping chicken breasts and thin, preformed burger patties. The other barge holds the stand itself, a wooden shed plastered top to bottom with vinyl signs. Inside it's packed with buns and drinks, and a few teenagers sidestep back and forth behind the counter, where a giant pot of hot dogs simmers on a propane burner. It's still before the rush, and the island is empty except for a little folding table stocked with ketchup and mustard bottles.
As the afternoon wears on, business picks up, and by 3:00 a line of tubers stretches from the stand to the shore and up the beach. Tubes have piled up on the pebbled beach, and the garbage can is already overflowing, styrofoam cups and box of Franzia strewn at its base. Crance stays in the captain's seat of his boat, "in command position," presiding over the whole operation, greeting friends (including his lawyer) who drift by, and occasionally flipping on the microphone to call out, "Tuuuubers. Two and a half hours to go. Paddle on over tubers. We've got cheeseburgers, chicken breasts, and of course our famous hot doooogs. Don't miss the most photographed spot in America. It's a party in your mouth!"
The tubers are wet and in high spirits, and though the line is long, it moves quickly. At one point a shouting, splashing ruckus breaks out between two large and inebriated groups of young people after one steals the other's pirate flag, but it's all in good fun, and they soon push off in an amoeba of connected tubes, firing their squirt guns into the air.
New Jersey has one of the richest hot dog cultures in the country, and the state is littered with vintage roadside stands that serve a wide variety of excellent frankfurter specimens. Crance knows this, and he's proud of the ones he sells. "I've tried every brand," he tells me, "and mine are the best." He claims his brand of choice is a closely held secret, but later I notice that one of his vinyl signs has a very large "Proudly Using Hatfield" logo on it. In any case, the all-beef hot dogs are plump, juicy, and perfectly satisfying as far as hot dogs go, though they're a little short for their buns and lack the nice snap of natural casing tubesteaks.
The Famous River Hot Dog Man will probably not be a stop on anyone's tour of New Jersey's greatest franks. These are bare-bones dogs—no deep frying, no special meat blend, and no toppings beyond ketchup and mustard. They are, after all, being sold from a raft on the river. And the rest of the menu options, which Crance more recently added to his repertoire, probably aren't worth skipping the hot dogs for.
"It's an institution that belongs not to New Jersey food culture, but to the Delaware, and the carefree camaraderie that blooms on its banks."
But if the Famous River Hot Dog Man's greatness doesn't lie in its hot dogs, it does lie in the journey, and what happens when you arrive: Drifting down the river on a hot day, rounding the bend to see a hot dog stand floating like a mirage just off a rocky beach. Waiting in line in knee-deep water. Eating at picnic tables half submerged into the river. It's an institution that belongs not to New Jersey food culture, but to the Delaware, and the carefree camaraderie that blooms on its banks.
As business for the day peaks, there are two lines trailing out of the water, but Crance is still disappointed by the turnout. "On a busy day we'll have eight lines going," he tells me. Business has been slow this summer because Delaware River Tubing, the tubing business Crance started back in 2003 to supplement his income and boost his hot dog business, has been on forced hiatus until today. In 2014, after years of staging the tubing operation—stacks of inner tubes, piles of lifejackets, shuttle buses, and all—in the parking lot of a Frenchtown roller rink, Crance decided to move to a building he bought near shore. But the building lacked a parking lot, and town business regulations required him to find one before he could open. Crance found a hayfield behind a local restaurant in Kingwood, NJ to do the job, but the field wasn't zoned for parking, and he was fined for using it. This year, just ahead of the summer season, he filed to get that zoning changed (which he says cost him thousands of dollars), but after a long string of hearings, Crance's request was denied for what he bitterly describes as "political reasons."
According to the local paper, the main concern was that cars waiting to get into the parking lot would pile up outside, clogging the highway that runs by. That left him, at the end of July, looking for another location in another town to reopen Delaware River Tubing. He finally found a place to the north, which he got up and running by that second weekend in August. But it all came together so fast that on this first day in business, few people have heard Delaware River Tubing is open, and it's quieter than he hoped.
The stand has been open all summer, but hot dogs alone don't make enough money for the Crance family to last the winter, especially without all the Delaware River Tubers buying into the package deal that gets them a full meal with their trip. For the many years when he just ran the Famous River Hot Dog Man, Crance found other jobs, like operating a cell phone store, for the off-season. Starting the tubing business was his bid to make the Delaware River his entire livelihood. But going all-in on the tubing business may backfire on him.
For one thing, he's stirred up the competition, and on this stretch of the river competition is usually addressed with the sort of tactics a high school football team might pull against their rival. Part of the reason the Famous River Hot Dog Man is the only floating stand of its kind is because Crance will set up right next to anyone who tries to open their own and give away free hot dogs. But on the flipside of that, when Crance decided to open a tubing business, he brought on the wrath of Bucks County River Country, the only other tubing company running on this stretch of the river.
Years later, that rivalry had become so fierce that A&E bought the pilot for an overblown reality show on the "River Dogs," (Crance proudly showed me the teaser video his friend produced to sell that idea to the network). With Crance's tubing company on hold, the blowhard trash-talking took a more serious turn when River Country, according to Crance at least, told all of its tubers that the hot dog stand was also closed, and encouraged them not to bring their wallets.
The tubing business has also attracted some unwanted attention and is starting to cost more than it earns. Locals tend not to be big fans of businesses that bring thousands of people (often armed with cases of beer and boxes of wine), parking lots full of cars, and a fleet of buses to their town. Neighborhood concerns over cars and crowds seem to be the main motivation behind those votes against the tubing company, which puts Crance in a bind. On the one hand, he relishes those crowds and needs them to keep his hot dog stand afloat. On the other hand, those crowds are expensive. A few years ago, the state began demanding tens of thousands of dollars for use of the boat ramps to the river. Even at the new location, Crance was so eager to open this late in the season that he did so without securing the proper business permits, and is now incurring $2,000 in fines a day.
Meanwhile, his hot dog stand—his oasis, his campaign to keep garbage out of the river—is losing business, and is tangled up in the seedy melee of local tubing company competition. In short, the Famous River Hot Dog Man faces the same dilemma any modest local restaurant faces when it achieves celebrity status: damned if you become a tourist trap, damned if you don't.
Crance is clearly rattled by all the recent resistance, and it's hard to know what will happen when this season is over, short and troubled as it's been. But, ever the salesman, he'd rather talk about how great his new location is, his plans for a bigger, better hot dog stand (where he can serve french fries, cheesesteaks, and Italian ices), and how "every time I turn the key to this boat it's better than the last."
As he likes to say, "Life is like tubing: You do it for the ride, not to get to the end." Sometimes you float with the current, sometimes you have to paddle hard to get to the hot dogs on the other side.