KENILWORTH, NJ – Mike Loikith makes his way easily around the Kenilworth kitchen of Jimmy Buff’s that he’s owned for the past five years, managing numerous orders and vendors during a busy lunch crowd. This is second nature to him, it should be, he’s been honing his craft since he was sixteen years old.
Loikith, now in his forties, a Cranford resident, husband and father, started out working alongside his grandfather at the former Jimmy Buff’s Scotch Plains location, and the rest is history. With just one brief stint in Corporate America, Loikith has been carrying on the famous Italian hot dog family tradition ever since.
Jimmy Buff’s was founded in 1932, by Loikith’s great-grandfather James (Jimmy) Racioppi, in Newark. Racioppi has been referred to as the original creator of the Italian Hot Dog, which was actually not intentional at first. Racioppi and his friends used to play cards in the basement of his home and his wife served snacks from any leftovers in the fridge, including peppers, onions and potatoes. She would add the vegetables to hot dogs and rolls, for a tasty combination. Jimmy’s friends enjoyed themselves so much they urged him to open a storefront.
The “Buff” part of the brand name, originated from Jimmy’s constant card “bluffing." According to Loikith, his great-grandfather’s Italian friends pronounced the word “bluff” as ”buff," and so Jimmy Buff’s Italian Style Hot Dogs and Sausages was coined.
Over the years, Loikith says that about 20 locations came and went as his great-grandfather and grandfather passed away, but his cousins Jimmy and Tommy still run a West Orange location and Loikith opened the Kenilworth storefront.
Recently Jimmy Buff’s was named one of the best hot dogs in the country by Yahoo! But notoriety is nothing new. Although Loikith is humble about it, the store has been recognized by many media outlets over the years, from Parade Magazine, to numerous local sources. One time Queen Latifah (a Newark native) even mentioned the hot dogs as one of her favorite indulgences during an interview.
During a recent visit to the hot dog haven, a soft drink vendor could be heard asking Loikith if he’s related to the founders of the Newark location. The owner quietly answered, “Yes, that was my great-grandfather." When the vendor continued to ask about his relation to the West Orange location too, Loikith added, “Yes, that’s my cousin." The vendor shook his head up and down with a nod of respect; a testament to the tradition and the dogs.
We ask Loikith how a hot dog has lasted so long in a calorie-, health-conscious world. He attributes it to three main reasons: Quality, quantity and nostalgia.
“All of our ingredients are fresh and hand cut daily," he added. "Our bread is freshly baked every day. All our flavors are natural. No chemical engineering here. The hot dogs are all beef; the potatoes are fresh Idaho russet. We also give you a lot of food for your money. Where else can you get full for five dollars? And of course our history— we've been in business for 84 years. People remember coming as kids. They loved it back then and they love it now. It brings back a lot of great memories for them.”
Loikith orders about 2,000 hot dogs per week, and while that’s his bread and butter for the business, he also offers cheese steaks, chicken fingers, veggie sandwiches and burgers, too.
As the lunch crowd continues flowing, phone orders too, the customers are diverse. Because the local schools have a half day when we visit, kids fill the booths, but also grandmothers and grandkids, businesspeople during their lunch hour and a customer picking up a double dog and a few t-shirts for some Jimmy Buff’s fans he knows.
While culinary fads seem to come and go, Jimmy Buff’s is a landmark and not going anywhere anytime soon. The ancestors of the creator of the Italian Hot Dog keep serving them up daily right in Kenilworth at #506 on the Boulevard.