Ralph, the Face of Santa Rosa
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
His Brooklyn accent pervades the air, something he long ago decided no amount of Californiazation would ruin. It’s part of his charm, as is the hot dog cart he has operated through 20 years worth of Santa Rosa seasons.
Ralph Morgenbesser is just shy of 71, with a gravelly laugh, a giant heart and a lecture on the virtues of sauerkraut.
Born in a brownstone in 1941 and raised by a Brooklyn neighborhood, he grew up playing baseball with the kids next door and listening to stories from the steady stream of guests in his home.
“All my life there’s been people,” Morgenbesser said. “My mother used to have all of these interesting people in New York who used to come sit in my house and tell me stories.”
People have always drawn him, and in turn, people have been drawn to him.
“I don’t think there’s been one time I have spoken with Ralph that he hasn’t made me smile,” said Debbie Krohn, a paralegal at a law office across the square. “In Yiddish, I would say he’s a real ’mench,’ a particularly good person.”
The inbred community of his Brooklyn neighborhood has helped Morgenbesser attract similar people here. Lawyers, the homeless, drug addicts, dog walkers, “mischievous” neighborhood kids and business executives all gather around for a bite of his “soul food.”
“It’s that Coney Island of the soul,” Morgenbesser says. “Hot dogs are soul food, they feed the soul, they feed the child within and bring a smile.”
He has fond memories of Tuesday night family outings to Coney Island, always stopping for hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously served Nathan’s hot dogs to the king and queen of England, and the restaurant attracted other diverse and famous customers such as Cary Grant, Al Capone and Jackie Kennedy.
“Brooklyn and Manhattan had plenty of hot dog carts too, but I never went to Coney Island without having a hot dog at Nathan’s,” he said.
Morgenbesser’s hot dog cart may be Santa Rosa’s own Nathan’s, but it almost didn’t happen.
After attending electronic technician school in the early 1980s, Morgenbesser got a callback for an interview with Hewlett Packard, a job he desperately wanted. But the interview was months away.
In the meantime, Marin-based Tegal Corporation called and he decided to “give it his best shot.” He was hired instantly, and over 11 years rose to the rank of senior engineering tech running a reliability lab. In 1992 he was laid off.
Morgenbesser took the opportunity to realize an old dream, and Ralph’s Courthouse Square Classics was born.
“I had always talked about owning a hot dog cart,” he said. “But if I had gotten that interview with HP, who knows?”
The cart opened in October 1992, keeping a standard lunch hour schedule in Courthouse Square and also appearing at hundreds of community events and farmers markets. Six years later, Morgenbesser also opened Ralph’s Santa Rosa Subs, a deli in the Empire Building that lasted almost 10 years before he closed it in 2007.
The hot dog cart remained.
“How can you not like the guy?” said William Reinking, the chairman of Exchange Bank and a “Ralphie” customer since its inception. “I love the hot dogs, and he’s such an icon downtown.”
Morgenbesser came to California in 1967, a “wild youth” roadtripping across America with a buddy in a Cadillac. They arrived on the West Coast, spending one of their first nights watching the surf pound against the cliffs of Big Sur.
“This is a Brooklyn boy who all of a sudden is seeing the majesty of the Big Sur in all of its glory on a moonlit night,” he said. “It was just an amazing experience for me.”
After a brief stay in Carmel hoping to catch a glimpse of Kim Novak (the actress used to own a ranch there), Morgenbesser moved north in the early 1970s. He landed in the Haight-Ashbury district and “became like a hippie,” experiencing psychedelics and having a “grand and lovely time.”
Not long after, he fell in love with a meter maid. They married and moved north so his wife could study topography at Sonoma State University. After spending a cold winter in Boyes Hot Springs in a summer cottage with no heat, they moved to Santa Rosa in the late 1970s.
During treatment for a prescription drug problem in 1980, Morgenbesser trained to become an electronic technician, skills that helped him land his school with Tegal. In 1984 at the age of 43, he also earned a degree in liberal “expressive” arts from SSU.
“People need to know that we do recover, that people do recover and lead fruitful lives,” he said of his time in treatment. Clean for over 25 years, Ralph also works as a driver for the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center and encourages recovering addicts who stop by the cart to chat.
“Old Courthouse Square wouldn’t be the same without Ralph,” said Krohn.
While serving an estimated 250,000 hot dogs over two decades, Morgenbesser has brushed up against a few celebrities. He once shared a meal with singer/actor Tom Waits at the cart, and Joe Montana’s family has stopped by a few times.
Even so, he marks the passage of time with births and deaths of the people who live in Santa Rosa. He speaks fondly of longtime Sonoma County attorneys William Geary and Michael O’Donnell, both deceased, saying with tears in his eyes that they “gave lawyers a good name.” He also talks of the mischievous local kids he watched grow up who now stop by to show off their babies.
“One of the most important things to my heart is bringing a smile to people who walk by,” Morgenbesser said. And if he ever retires, he has an even grander dream.
“I want to teach English as a second language overseas. I want to get all the Asian children and African children and everyone to speak English with a Brooklynese accent.”
Read about all 10 people chosen as Towns’ “Faces of Sonoma County.”