(DOGGONE GOOD: Larry Sauger and Karl Neumann have Pittie Dog Grill sizzlin’)

By Marisa Marsey

Since adopting a puppy last year, my ears prick up at any mention of the word “dog” as avidly as Sheepish, my Miniature Sheepadoodle, sniffs out squirrels. So when I heard about Pittie Dog Grill, I hightailed it to the new spot in Norfolk’s Riverview Village.

I fell in love in a snap.

The snap of an all-beef Sabrett hot dog, that is, the kind I relished when living in Manhattan years ago. Known for a natural casing that leads to that satisfying pop, Sabrett is practically synonymous with New York.

But I fell hard for Pittie Dog Grill over more than juicy bites. Owners Larry Sauger and Karl Neumann make no bones about their two pronged-mission: to raise hot dogs from their bum rap as trash food and defang the notion that pit bulls are a trash breed.

Experience the first by padding up to the counter of this fast-casual eatery where eager-to-please staff ask for your choice of frankfurter size: standard, jumbo or foot-long. There’s also a skinless version popular with kids.

Once it’s chargrilled, you unleash your creativity by choosing from among 50 drool-worthy toppings. Go maximalist, minimalist or in-between with shredded cheese, lettuce, sliced tomato, onions (red, green and white), guacamole, mayo, coleslaw, sport peppers, banana peppers, jalapenos, sour cream, blue cheese, BBQ sauce and more to construct your own designer dog (all garnishes included in the price except for sautéed onions and bacon which incur a slight surcharge).

It’s like Subway for wieners, fitting since that’s what this little doghouse of a building used to be.

“We don’t want to tell people what they can and can’t do with their dog,” said managing partner Larry over the phone while he and Karl were driving up to Buffalo on Christmas Eve to celebrate with family, their two 80-pound pitties in the backseat of their Nissan Frontier. “There are some places who say, ‘It’s sacrilege to put ketchup on a dog.’” Not here.You give the commands.One woman always requests five of the seven kinds of mustards (they run the spectrum from incandescent yellow to dusky pub). And once a man demanded every single topping. He needed a knife and fork.

“People like what they like,” added Karl, a full-time nurse at Sentara Norfolk General’s Transplant Center who comes in during his off-hours.

Bratwurst, burgers, chicken tenders and a plant-based dog round out the chow along with sidewinder fries (which can be dressed with cheese sauce or chili-cheese), onion petals (an “Outback Bloomin’ Onion” with an indie streak), sweet potato waffle fries and custard shakes.

The menu has evolved as Larry and Karl heed their customers’ advice. They always offered hot dog chili as a topping, but when people started requesting bowls – ideal on a cold winter’s day – they put a traditional meat and bean chili on the menu. 

They now list Chicago dogs, too. Distinguished by a poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, chopped white onions, dill pickle, tomatoes, lip-prickling sport peppers, perky celery salt and sweet neon relish (blue coloring is the secret to its eye-popping look, shared Larry), it’s a bestseller (top dog, if you will). 

There’s also a Norfolk dog, natch. “You can get all other regional specialties – like Carolina with coleslaw– but that’s just a matter of your toppings,” explained Larry. “With the Norfolk dog, we need to know because the yellow mustard and onions go on the bun before the dog.”

Specialty dogs might also make an appearance. Feliz Navidad, including a bun cradling a cheese quesadilla, starred in December.

The second part of their dogged mission, spreading the word that American Pit Bull Terriers deserve attention and affection, frankly runs throughout their spic-and-span 25-seat Grill.

A flat-screen TV plays a YouTube channel called Pittie Nation with nonstop coverage of what great pets pit bulls can be; a paper menu-pamphlet discusses how poor breeding, training and treatment are what have led to well-publicized, horrific attacks; and vibrant, aww-inducing abstract paintings of irresistible pit bulls line the walls.

“They’re a sappy, goofy, fun-loving breed, and that series of bright, colorful art expresses that,” said Karl. He and Larry know firsthand thanks to Nutmeg (aka Meg, 3) and Ivan (4), the impetus behind their business.

Of course, they don’t discriminate. Tributes to their late Boxer, Otis, and Carolina Dog, Tiqu, are on display, and since opening in October, they’ve funneled one hundred percent of the proceeds from pumpkin/peanut butter doggie treats baked in-house (in precious shapes including hot dogs) to Norfolk SPCA and Norfolk Animal Care Center as well as profits from sales of merch like t-shirts and hot sauces. 

In 2024, they’ll donate to a different charity every month, spotlighting the variety of local organizations benefiting dogs. They’d like canine companions to become clientele, too, so will build a patio by summer and offer doggie ice cream (frozen Greek yogurt and peanut butter).  Talk about a pittie party!

Larry and Karl have lived in nearby Colonial Place for nearly two decades, and their loyalty to neighboring businesses suffuses the Grill with such bonhomie, even those who claim they’re not “hot dog people” are drawn here. “Riverview is coming back, and we’re part of bringing it back to life,” said Larry.

My friend Karen – who convinced me to rescue Sheepish – shares Larry and Karl’s appreciation of pit bulls. Hers is named Freddie Mercury. She told me that however you train a pit bull, they’ll return it tenfold. So, teach them to be loving and they’ll magnify that. Hmm, tenfold. That’s the factor by which you’ll adore Pittie Dogs, too. It’s more than puppy love.

4140 Granby Street, Norfolk. 757-917-5340. Open Wed.-Sat. from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Order online for pickup or delivery: pittiedog.com