LEADVILLE • Maybe you weren’t in the mood for a hot dog. Or didn’t think you were.
But this town’s only hot dog stand is impossible to miss. And it’s been known to change a mood or two.
Jane Harelson sees it every day. Someone walks by, sneaks a look at her stand and her “you’ll relish the flavor!” sign. A few steps and a U-turn later and they’re asking for a frank with mustard. Jane’s an expert at making people want a hot dog who never would’ve thought about it a minute ago.
“The aroma,” one U-turner, who was passing through from Texas, explained. “That’s what did it.”
Visitors easily spot Jane’s Hot Dog Stand. The red and white umbrella seems to say it all. And they say it’s easy to suddenly crave a hot dog once you see one or smell one. It caught the eye of a guy who rolled down his car window to yell, “How late are you open?”
The hot dog stand is no surprise to locals. Jane’s been in the same place — on the sidewalk in front of the county courthouse — for 21 summers. It’s just off Harrison Street, which is Main Street in this town and also the busy highway U.S. 24.
Jane, who is 57, grew up here, so she can’t go 10 minutes without seeing someone she’s known her whole life. “Hey Jane,” says an older man with an oxygen tube. “Hey Jane,” says another man who’s walking his shaggy-haired dog. She always says hello back. She always knows their names. To one passerby, Jane passes along an extra hello from her mom. Even though they don’t want hot dogs this time, Jane knows what toppings they like.
Then Carl Schaefer comes by for his first hot dog of the summer.
“I thought you were mad at me,” Jane says. “Or went to be a vegetarian.”
Sitting on a bench a few steps away, Schaefer and his wife, Donna, say this is their first meal outside their house since the coronavirus pandemic started. That’s a high compliment to Jane. They have more.
“She’s almost like an institution,” Carl Schaefer said of Jane and her hot dog stand. “We’d miss her if she wasn’t here.”
That’s especially true for people who work nearby, like Schaefer.
“She filled a void,” he said. “It’s something quick, something simple, something good.”
Leadville’s main strip was home to another hot dog stand in the ‘80s, Jane said.
Around that time, she spent her winters as a ski bum. And she worked at restaurants in the summers.
Then she wanted to buy a house. The bank told her she needed a “real job” to get a loan.
So Jane managed an office for four years. And she built the house.
“Then I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “I couldn’t handle the fluorescent lights. I couldn’t handle the phone anymore. I couldn’t handle stress.”
What could she do?
“I couldn’t really think of anything,” Jane said.
Except for selling hot dogs.
It checked the boxes: She’d be outside. She’d be around people. She’d be her own boss.
Well, kind of.
“I’m really not my boss,” Janes says now, more than two decades later. “My bosses are my customers.”
But everything else is true. She says she opens at 11 a.m., but would rather fit in a morning bike ride than be right on time.
“I love my working conditions,” Jane says. “I sit out in the sun and talk to nice people.”
And when she talks, she shines.
She talks about the sunshine and feeling like she’s on top of the world in Leadville. She tells out-of-towners to drive down the road to look at Twin Lakes and the wildflowers. She talks enough to have made a bond with a family from Oklahoma that visits Leadville each year. They texted Jane recently about having to cancel this year’s trip.
When a customer orders two hot dogs, Jane cautiously asks, “Do you have something important to do today? Sometimes when you eat two, you get sleepy.”
When another customer, a 4-year-old, orders one, Jane spells out his name in mustard on the hot dog.
One of Jane’s regulars says one hot dog a day keeps the doctor away.
Jane tried that one summer. She had one for every lunch.
“Believe it or not, I lost weight,” she said.
Jane limits herself to two per week these days.
“I think they’re delicious and nutritious in moderation,” Jane said.
Still, her hot dogs sell like hot cakes. She’s worked concessions at baseball games and says her setup off Harrison Street is more lucrative. She’s more concerned about what people say than the dollars she tucks into the tip jar.
“It’s very flattering to me when I set up the first of June and people say, ‘Oh it’s summer. You’re here,’” she said. “It’s a sign of summer.”
What’s important to Jane is that she makes enough to make a living. And she makes people happy in a way they, sometimes, weren’t even looking for.