For one day in March, it's going to be 1977 again at Woody's.
To mark the first day of spring on March 20, the owners of the landmark Hartford hot dog eatery will also celebrate 40 years in business with a throwback special. They'll be selling footlong, all-beef hot dogs with traditional toppings for just 65 cents each, the price when Gary (known as "Woody") and Cindy Wood launched their hot-dog business four decades ago.
"When we do the hot-dog special, we become the same age," says Cindy with a laugh. "I'm going to be 23 and Gary's going to be 24. It's going to be a miracle."
That was the year the newlyweds started vending from a truck with a hot-dog cooker and an ice-cream chest. Over the next two decades, they sold from carts at various locations throughout Hartford, taking advantage of the prosperous 1980s and serving food to daytime office workers and nighttime concertgoers.
The couple moved their business indoors in 1998 to its present location at 915 Main St., the former American Airlines building. At that point, the city had seen economic downturn, the loss of the Hartford Whalers NHL team, and would soon see the failure of a proposed deal to lure the New England Patriots to Connecticut from Foxborough.
But that unsuccessful Patriots deal eventually inspired the Woods to introduce their Fish Tank bar in the space next to the restaurant in 2007, an aqua and orange lair filled with Miami Dolphins memorabilia. They first became enamored with the team as they spent "snowbird" winters in Florida, after vending during the warm months in Hartford, Cindy says.
The bar's seats are even reserved for Dolphins fans who've paid for that privilege, their names marked in brass plates. But even they can't sit in their designated seats unless they're donning team colors, the Woods say.
Today, Woody's hot dogs range from classic to creative, and the couple says they were among the first in the area to experiment with unconventional hot-dog toppings — like cheese sauce.
"Everyone was emulating the New York hot dog," Cindy says. "We made the decision that we were going to do our Hartford version of the hot dog."
They experimented for years with more recipes, and the menu eventually evolved into today's "Woody's Posse," a dozen loaded footlong dogs with unusual flavor profiles.
There's the signature "Deputy Dog" with pulled pork, cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce; and two Italian-inspired dogs (the Dog Father and the Dean Martin) with mozzarella, marinara and Italian peppers or pepperoni. The Hot Chihuahua and the Devil Dog turn up the heat with habanero mustard, hot peppers, hot sauce, jalapeño peppers and hot relish.
The Chicago Dog is Woody's take on the Windy City's regional pride, Cindy says, with neon relish, pickle, onion, tomato and celery salt. Though it's missing the requisite poppyseed bun and sport peppers, she says they've received compliments from Chicagoans.
Other top favorites include the Southern Slaw dog with cole slaw and chili; the Reuben dog with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut and melted Swiss; and a newer addition, the Mac Daddy dog crowned with creamy mac and cheese and bacon slices. The specialty Posse dogs are $5 to $5.75; footlongs with toppings like mustard, relish and onions are $4. Burgers and sandwiches on Texas toast are $3.75 to $10.75; sides, including fries, onion rings, slaw and baked beans, are $1.75 to $9, and fried-dough pizzas with cheese and pepperoni are $7.50.
"The Deputy is the most famous because of the national attention," Cindy says. "But each dog has its own following."
In 2009, the couple was heading out at the end of the day when the phone rang, and Cindy encouraged Gary to stop and take the call. It was the Travel Channel, looking to feature their hot dogs on an upcoming episode of "Man v. Food" with host Adam Richman.
Richman and his crew spent nine hours taping the two-minute segment, Gary says, which spotlighted the Deputy Dog. "I mean this from the bottom of my heart; I think this may be one of my absolute favorite hot dogs I've ever, ever eaten," Richman told him between bites of the barbecue-inspired item. His sentiment is immortalized on a poster by a condiment stand.
"He's a super nice guy. What you see is what you get," Gary says. "He helped me along; I was a little camera-shy."
After the Travel Channel exposure, the Woods decided to add a food challenge of their own: two footlong hot dogs with habanero mustard and some of the world's hottest peppers: ghost chilis, Trinidad scorpions and Scotch bonnets. Participants must sign a waiver and finish every bite in 20 minutes and they're denied the aid of a beverage or napkins.
Winners get a T-shirt and bragging rights, and losers must sign a "wall of shame" (where an unfortunate 2013 participant scrawled "Thought I was dying" next to their signature). Of 445 brave souls, 17 have actually finished the scorching challenge. "That's still about 15 too many," Gary says.
The business has embraced social media, keeping fans updated on Facebook and signing on to partner with UberEATS, which just launched in the Hartford region. Cindy gives Gary all the credit for that.
"My husband adapted [to technology,]" she says. "I'm in the dark ages. Ask him … I fight it, clawing all the way."
After 40 years, the couple says they're not sure what's next as they head toward retirement age.
"We want to get a food truck, just work the summers, take the winters off," Gary says. "My wife keeps begging me to take some time off and start enjoying life."
He stops by the bar and gestures toward the name plates.
"But see, I'm [between] a rock and a hard place. You see these names on the bar? These are my season ticketholders."
WOODY'S, 915 Main St., Hartford, is open Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays, open at noon. It's open for Miami Dolphins games, UConn games and special events. 860-278-5499, woodyshotdog.com.