By Bruce Edward
One sure sign of spring is when you see Lenny Montuori’s hot dog cart parked at its familiar spot on Route 7 near the Post Road.
Well, spring is still a few months off, but for those who long for Big Lenny’s hot dogs covered with his mouth-watering, homemade toppings, there is good news.
Starting last week, Big Lenny began serving lunch five days a week at Muckenschnabel’s pub on Madison Street.
Montuori was looking for a new winter venue for his business at about the same time his friends Chris “Boo” Bourque and Tim Puro bought Muckenschnabel’s, a neighborhood bar that’s been around since the early 1970s.
Bourque and Puro bought the bar in June, and proceeded to make some major renovations, with new high tables, chairs, bathrooms, lighting, sound system and several wide-screen televisions.
The new owners had no plans to serve lunch until Bourque stopped by Montuori’s hot dog stand this summer and began talking about the possibility.
“I know Lenny’s got a huge following,” Bourque said. But he also said it’s about “two friends helping each other.”
Their friend would get a place to sell his hot dogs during the winter, and they would get some new customers.
“I’m well known, so everybody knows me,” Montuori said, standing behind the parquet bar wearing a black apron with “Big Lenny’s” in red letters.
In over 28 years in business, Montuori has cultivated a large and loyal following. By his estimate, his Facebook page has in the neighborhood of 7,000 friends.
“Over the years Rutland has been good to me because I’ve really built a nice relationship,” he said.
The name Big Lenny’s fits. Montuori, 66, is a big man with an outsized personality to match. A nonstop talker and natural salesman, Montuori admits to being “a character.”
His menu also does the talking: Essem-brand natural-casing, all-meat franks, hot and sweet sausage, and kielbasa. But the real secret to Montuori’s 28 years in business as the “hot dog man” is his toppings made from scratch. Take your pick from sweet red onion, hot relish, chili, caramelized onions and peppers, sauerkraut, apple cider honey mustard and Vermont maple sriracha.
He said the toppings take his “hot dogs to the next level.”
In honor of “Mucks,” as he calls the bar, he may add a specialty sandwich like a bratwurst.
Serving lunch at the bar also has an advantage over his hot dog cart. Puro said people don’t have to stand, or eat and run. He said now they can sit down and relax, watch TV or play games.
A Connecticut native, Montuori is a self-taught chef who started out in life as an electromechanical designer. Bored, he gravitated to selling cars and then found his niche in the restaurant business, first in Connecticut and then Vermont. His résumé includes the Red Clover Inn, Governor’s Table, Sabby’s, Boo’s Downtown Café and Little Naples.
But in the fast-paced restaurant world, Montuori came to a point where he needed to slow down and make a change, either run a kitchen or sell hot dogs, but not both. It was an easy choice.
“I said, you know what, I like being the hot dog man instead because it’s a lot less pressure,” he said.
Montuori tried to make a go selling dogs from his cart on Route 7 during the winter but it never worked out. “Ten-below-zero weather, it’s not hot dog weather on the street,” he said.
He tried moving indoors to Noble Ace Hardware on North Main Street but that didn’t quite catch on either.
At Muckenschnabel’s, Montuori will start off serving lunch Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. He also said he’ll play it by ear to get a feel for the business and change the hours accordingly.