Berkeley institution Top Dog is on the ropes. But they still wont take federal aid. – SFGate

Posted: April 21, 2020 at 3:41 am

Tony Robinson grills a sausage for an order. Top Dog, a Berkeley food institution, has stayed open with take out orders during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place order in Berkeley, Calif. on April 14, 2020.

Tony Robinson grills a sausage for an order. Top Dog, a Berkeley food institution, has stayed open with take out orders during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place order in Berkeley, Calif. on April 14, 2020.

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGate

Tony Robinson grills a sausage for an order. Top Dog, a Berkeley food institution, has stayed open with take out orders during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place order in Berkeley, Calif. on April 14, 2020.

Tony Robinson grills a sausage for an order. Top Dog, a Berkeley food institution, has stayed open with take out orders during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place order in Berkeley, Calif. on April 14, 2020.

Berkeley institution Top Dog is on the ropes. But they still wont take federal aid.

For more coverage, visit our complete coronavirus section here.

You never forget your first trip to Top Dog.

The tiny, Berkeley-born grab-and-go grill is a rite of passage for Cal students, slinging superlative sausages late night til 3 a.m. along with a side of libertarian literature.

Top Dog opened in 1966, during the heart of the Free Speech Movement, and 54 years later, it still features walls plastered with everything from yellow-ish newspaper clippings pushing for the privatization of the postal service to "Freedom Works Better Than Government" bumper stickers.

All of which has made the coronavirus pandemic uniquely difficult for its owners, Richard and Renie Riemann.

"We dont want to take money from the government," Renie says. "Our political background is for smaller government regulations how can we turn around and do the opposite? This will challenge what we believe in."

Will it ever.

Top Dog has closed two of its three locations since the coronavirus pandemic forced a shelter-in-place order for six Bay Area counties including Alameda County and was forced to lay off one-third of its 19-person staff.

Renie, who graduated from Cal in 1967 and married Richard in 1968, said shes hopeful Top Dog can last through April.

"Its a pretty scary time," she admits from inside of a tiny office behind Top Dogs Durant Avenue location the only one still open. "Were trying to stay afloat, but the hardest part is bringing in enough money for rent for all three places and utilities."

The city of Berkeley launched a $3 million relief fund on March 22, offering $10,000 grants to struggling small businesses with 50 or fewer employees to help cover operational expenses (payroll, rent, working capital).

The federal government approved the CARES Act on March 27, which includes the Paycheck Protection Program. The government assistance program offers loans to brick-and-mortars like Top Dog that they promise to fully forgive provided at least 75% of the borrowed dollars are going to payroll costs, and the other 25% are to interest on mortgages, rent, and/or utilities.

Riemann has zero interest in both.

"Theres always something of a catch," she said of borrowing money from the government. "We need a lot more transparency in general. Ive talked to other businesses and customers, and theyre all disgusted by the way money is taken in and we dont know whats happening to it.

"Were fixing our own potholes it just doesnt make sense."

Renie, 76, spends her days in the office and still eats a sausage almost every day (for "quality control"). Like everyone else, she shouts her order from Top Dogs doorway to keep the recommended 6 feet of social distance, and marvels at a grill thats slightly less full of sizzling dogs than usual.

She wears a mask and remembers to wash her hands, but generally feels a bit helpless.

"With the '89 earthquake, my first thought was I need to help somehow. I need to work in a cafeteria, or help at a hospital. But now, Ive realized Im not 30 anymore. I feel 30, but Im 76, and I cant expose myself that would put my husband at risk."

And Renie is at risk, but that seems beside the point for her.

Instead, her full attention is on keeping the business alive not only for her and her husbands legacy, but for the Top Dog employees in their wills. Thats right: Four Top Dog employees will be bequeathed the Top Dog empire when the owners pass.

"A lot of our staff has been around for a long time our main manager, Jeremy (Bower), hes gonna be 60. I think he came on board when he was 18. Theyre all in the will," she says. "My husband and I said, 'You know, we have to keep this going, because when we depart we want to leave this to you guys.'"

To that end, Top Dog has asked for some forgiveness from local suppliers that have deferred bills, plus it haspartnered with Uber Eats to expand its reach locally ("thats been helpful," she says), and, less locally, theres been a slight uptick in mail orders from Old Blues.

"Cal has had so many people come through it; theres still a nostalgia for us," she says. "We just got an order back East, somebodys father who was a Cal grad, probably my age, and they remembered he liked Top Dog. It was costly to them, but I can appreciate it. Id do something like that. And every little bit helps.

"Most businesses like us have a thin profit margin, thats the scary part. You dont have a big buildup of back money to ride this out. Were staying afloat as long as we can."

Its just not entirely clear how long that will be.

"Were struggling along, weve got a skeleton crew, were just hoping the pandemic wont last too much longer for peoples health first of all, but also so we can all go back to business."

The one still-open Top Dog is located at 2534 Durant Ave. in Berkeley and open 10 a.m. to midnight. You can mail order sausages and buns at topdoghotdogs.com.

Grant Marek is the Editorial Director of SFGATE. Email: grant.marek@sfgate.com | Twitter: @grant_marek

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Berkeley institution Top Dog is on the ropes. But they still wont take federal aid. - SFGate

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