By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – The wide smiles of sheer joy blanketing the faces of each person in the over 50 photos that envelop the bright yellow walls inside reveal most everything that has made Leo Drye’s journey so priceless.
“This is Newburgh, and so much of what makes it such a special place,” reflects Drye as he surveys some of those countenances. “Some are of police and firemen, who are so important to include; while many others up here have passed away, but it’s important to remember them and the mark they have left on this community.”
Drye himself has spent the last 30 years leaving his own authentic imprint on the Newburgh landscape. The driving force behind those smiling wall images, Drye- just as he has been doing since 1992- is proudly handing off each person a treasured, simple gift: a hot dog.
On Saturday, March 4, Drye made that symbolic hotdog passage inside his own restaurant for the first time at the Grand Opening of his 169 Broadway, City of Newburgh restaurant. The event of over 150, included several local politicians: long-time customers City of Newburgh Mayor, Torrance Harvey and Councilmen, Omari Shakur and Anthony Grice, along with business neighbor, Reverend Willy Mays, who offered a prayer and blessing.
“It’s so important to have God here in this building,” said Drye as he fully imbibed the nostalgic interior of his restaurant, which sports distinct orange stools, old-school Coke and Sabrett Hotdogs signs as well as a distinct, eye-popping yellow-hued front counter space, made of old antique doors by Drye. To the left, in the front of that counter, a white sign, detailing the restaurant’s offerings: hot dogs, sausages, chips, candy and drinks, completes the interior décor.
“I really like to keep it simple,” said Drye. “I find people appreciate it, cutting back on any stress and keeping the focus on less choices- just simple food.”
That basic winning approach can be traced back to Drye’s entry into the hotdog sphere. Born in Harlem, he moved to Newburgh at age six, retuning two more times throughout his life, landing a job in maintenance at South Jr. High School which he held for 32 years.
During that time, in 1992, he made a decision that would forever change the dynamic of his life and that of countless others: He purchased a cart off of a supply store owner on Broadway, transforming it into a magical, mobile hotdog eatery.
“I pushed that cart throughout the streets of Newburgh, from Chamber to South to Liberty every day after work,” recalled Drye about his “side gig.”
People began to take notice of that hardworking, determined man, not to mention how delicious Drye’s hotdogs and personably charming and upbeat the man behind the cart were. Before long, the stakes increased.
“Someone whispered in my ear that I needed to take my cart to Front Street, once all the restaurants were built down there,” said Drye about those early days.
Unprecedented hot dog sales led to further business evolution: A food truck. Purchasing a white Fed Ex truck, which he converted into a kitchen, along with a white lion-face and Leo’s Hotdogs lettering logo exterior, Drye comfortably settled into his new, more stationary, Newburgh Waterfront staple for the next 16 years. Then, Billy Joe’s Restaurant opened its doors, legally barring Drye’s occupancy (outdoor food vendors not allowed outside of restaurants), but opening up an even better chapter, something he refers to as, “The best thing that ever happened” in his hotdog travels: The purchase of a trailer, and yet another self-installed kitchen. With this latest expansion, came even more frankfurter sales and of course: trademark smiles. Now with three mobile, outdoor hot dog sites, the only barrier that seemed to be facing Drye was a year-round “home base,” whose operation was unaffected by the outdoor elements.
As with everything else that has unfolded in his hotdog ventures, opportunity once again emerged just at the exact, needed time.
“It all started with the incentive from my girlfriend to start my own business, a restaurant,” said Drye. “She reminded me how I had been doing everything else with Leo’s Hotdogs and could really make this happen too.”
With the seeds of love from both his girlfriend and the support of the community, Drye created that indoor hot dog locale. Enter the 169 Broadway space on any day and you can’t help but be hooked: Whether it’s that special “pop” you hear when you bite down on a perfectly cooked “dog,” or sweet smell of frankfurters steaming underneath the aluminum cover, enticing aroma of the chili, sauerkraut, or cheese sauce topping offerings, hearing Leo or one of his three co-workers and eventual heirs to the business: children- Brittany, Sojourner or Luis- greeting you (often by name) with a cheery, “Hello, what can I get for you today?” or simply glancing at those smiling, satisfied figures on the wall, it’s a genuine slice of all the amazingness embedded in the Newburgh community.
“I get so much joy from seeing my customers being happy being here,” said Drye. “Newburgh is special with all of its diversity and the different cultures and experiences it brings to the table; I want to be a part of that as much as possible as well as be an inspiration that anything is possible in this life.”