Workers with the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) arrived to their SanTana office in early April to shock and dismay. Over the weekend, thieves broke into the secured parking area below their building and drove off with the union's van. The bandits also stole two refrigerators, supplies and a freezer with 2,000 hot dogs inside. And they took OCEA's legendary double barrel propane grill, better known as the Hot Dog Wagon, that fed working communities for over a decade.
"We immediately told our members about it because the hot dog wagon has been such an important part of the union's work," OCEA General Manager Jennifer Muir Beuthin says. "We started getting tips from our members who had seen the van in Santa Ana over the weekend."
Within a day, Santa Ana police tracked down the union's red and black van, which led to more stolen property to be recovered. "A social worker for the county who's also an OCEA member was having lunch with her husband, a Santa Ana police officer," Beuthin says. "He went out to that neighborhood, knocked on some doors and found our property."
The public employees union got its van, freezer and stolen supplies back. But a month later, the storied hot dog wagon still hasn't turned up.
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OCEA's hot dog unionism dates back long before the wagon rolled along. "Back in the old days, they used to actually boil hot dogs in the kitchen here, wrap them in foil and deliver them to the job site," Beuthin says. Nick Berardino, her predecessor, decided on upgrading the tradition more than ten years ago by buying the portable kitchen. And the 100 percent all-beef franks have filled the hungry stomachs of workers ever since.
Hitched to the back of the van, the wagon grilled hot dogs for community events, too, like Toys for Tots events at Santa Ana Zoo and even helped celebrate Jerry Brown's past two inaugurations in Sacramento. "We've been able to be present in the community in a way that illustrates our values as a union and as working people," Beuthin says. The recent theft hampered community events the union had planned, including a fundraiser for Anaheim public school programming.
The outpouring of support following the break-in shows just how much the community reveres the wagon. The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs lent their own van and grill for the time being until the OCEA buys a replacement. And even though the case of the stolen hot dog wagon has gone as cold as an Angels Stadium wiener with no arrests made, the union vows to have its unique grill retrofitted from a smoker back in its possession.
"I don't care if it happens tomorrow, or a year from now or five years from now, we're going to find that hot dog wagon," Beuthin says. "We're never going to stop trying to get it back."