The walls at Woody’s in Hartford, once laden with orange-and-aqua Miami Dolphins memorabilia, are now nearly bare. Many of the nameplates along the bar, belonging to the restaurant’s “season ticketholders” who paid for their designated seats, have been removed.
Woody’s, a Hartford hot dog institution, plans to close in the next few weeks after more than 40 years in the city. Owners Gary and Cindy Wood cite assorted health issues and a desire to step back and enjoy life as reasons for the closing.
“It’s getting to be too much,” says Gary Wood, who has had two hip replacements in the past year. “It’s been my wife and I doing most of the work, and we’re starting to burn ourselves out...You’ve got to know when to fold them.”
The couple says they have made a request to their landlord to stay open through St. Patrick’s Day. If that request is not granted, they say, then Woody’s will close at the end of February.
After the closing, the Woods will handle catering at special events with their New York-style hot dog cart and are entertaining the idea of buying a food truck to get back to their roots as mobile vendors. In 1977, the Woods, then newlyweds, started vending from a truck with a hot-dog cooker and an ice-cream chest.
Cindy Wood says she has mixed feelings about the decision to close, but that the couple is trying to move away from the daily grind of the restaurant.
“You know, I think we’ve worked really hard. I think we’ve given more than 100 percent to the city and I think it’s time to make the cut, and go,” she says. “Let’s just step back a little bit. It’s harder and harder for the small businessperson...you have some really good days but then there’s days when it’s tough. The city doesn’t have the amount of employees it used to.”
After launching their first vending business, the Woods sold from carts at various locations throughout Hartford, taking advantage of the prosperous 1980s and serving food to daytime office workers and nighttime concertgoers.
In 1996, they moved the business indoors to its present location at 915 Main Street, the former American Airlines building. They would witness economic downturn, the loss of the Hartford Whalers NHL franchise and an unsuccessful effort to bring the New England Patriots to Hartford from Foxborough.
The failed Patriots deal inspired the Woods to open the Fish Tank bar, a haven for their fellow Miami Dolphins fans, in 2007. The couple became diehard fans of the team as they spent "snowbird" winters in Florida when they were younger, after vending during the warm months in Hartford. Gary Wood is now selling much of the memorabilia that decorated the space, including signed footballs and framed photos.
Woody’s menu of hot dogs evolved over time to feature "Woody's Posse," a dozen loaded footlong dogs with creative flavor profiles: mac and cheese with bacon, a Reuben dog with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss; and a “Dogfather” with marinara, peppers and mozzarella.
In 2009, Woody’s got an unexpected boost from national exposure, as the Travel Channel came calling. Adam Richman, the host of “Man v. Food,” wanted to include their hot dogs in an upcoming episode featuring Hartford-area food favorites.
“That’s when the Deputy Dog really took off,” Gary Wood says, referencing Woody’s signature dog topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese. After Richman sang the Deputy’s praises on the episode, the spike in business was so immediate that the restaurant’s computer system crashed several times.
Luke Freimuth of Thomaston stopped into the restaurant Tuesday afternoon to buy some memorabilia from the Fish Tank bar, including a Dolphins beer pitcher, decorative surfboard and table. He said he first started eating at Woody’s when he was working in Hartford about a decade ago.
“I was heartbroken,” he says about hearing the news of the closing. Woody’s had been a favorite lunch spot among his colleagues, “usually Friday, for a little indulgence. We’d be in the hallway at the office, saying ‘Who wants to come with us?’ and before you know it, there were 6, 8 of us coming over.”
Gary Wood says he’ll miss the camaraderie among football fans most. Cindy agrees, joking about bonding with customers over “a mutual hatred for the Patriots.”
“I think the city will miss us,” Cindy says. “And I feel bad about that, but I feel like we’ve tried to give everybody the best that we could.”