The festival chef

How Ron Lischeid became the Wiener Meister of Minneapolis — and what he gave up along the way

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Ron Lischeid stood next to his grill, latex-gloved hands tightly gripping a damp Coke can. With his hairy head — crew cut on top, all Santa on bottom — facing down, his gravelly voice was quiet for a moment.

He stared. Opened his mouth. Closed it. Stared.

It was the first time in two hours he was extra careful with his words.

Finally: “I leave for work at 8 or 8:30 every morning. I come home at 1 or 1:30 every morning. Seven days a week. Don’t have time for much else.”

He turned around, hobbling to the dozens of hot dogs awaiting his attention. Couldn’t let the meat get too burned.

The question that gave him pause was, Why do it? Why volunteer at dozens of events and festivals each year, making nowhere near a profit, filling up so much time that he doesn’t have a spare moment to so much as take a ride on his motorcycle?

Why?

Lischeid doesn’t really have an answer.

He believes in neighborhoods, he said. He’s the Wiener Meister. He only serves neighborhoods and nonprofits and gets his satisfaction from the “thank yous” he hears from the people who eat his hot dogs, brats and hamburgers.

But why do it to the point that he loses $500–$600 every month, a rate so high he can’t afford health insurance?

“My mother, she used to refer to me as a village idiot,” Lischeid said.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median number of hours Americans spent on volunteer work in all of 2007 was 52. Lischeid covers that in less than a month.

So far this year, he’s cooked at festivals including those of Linden Hills, Tangletown and Kenny. Fulton and Windom are on his agenda.

At 60, he lives in a one-bedroom efficiency above Campus Pizza by the University of Minnesota. But Southwest was his home for a long time. At one point he was a resident of Linden Hills Boulevard, and at another he served as president of the Windom Community Council.

He is treasurer of three groups, District Councils Collaborative, South Metro Airport Action Council and Motorcycle Dial-A-Ride. He grills for police-week festivities and organizes the annual Pride Picnic in St. Paul. His most proud work comes every year at StandDown, where he cooks meals for homeless veterans.

“It’s one of those things to keep me busy,” Lischeid said. “You get to a point in your life where making a buck isn’t the most important thing.”

* * *

Money used to have more significance, when he was growing up.

He was born in Maryland to a homemaker and a military man. He had an older sister who was severely mentally retarded. She died when she was 6 years old. His father went missing in action that same year, 1950, during the Korean War. Lischeid said his father died; a body was never found.

Sixteen years later, Lischeid moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. He graduated with a degree in vocational education — “I could teach shop class. I never have.” — and entered the auto repair industry. From 1978 to 1980, he operated Dunrite Motors at 44th Street & Abbott Avenue.

He exited the industry for a while. Then he reentered.

But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the airline industry took a nosedive, so did car rentals. Lischeid, whose work at the time was largely in rentals, was out of a job by month’s end.

No other employer wanted him. In his mid-50s, he was too old for the jobs he was qualified to do, Lischeid said.

For 16 months, he was without work. Next he lost his home.

* * *

Lischeid dabbles in politics. He’s run for school board seats, council seats and House of Representatives seats. He’s currently up for House District 59B as the officially endorsed Independence Party candidate.

He never has won.

“I’m actually the answer to the trivia question, ‘Who’s lost the most elections in Minnesota since 1992?’” he joked while setting up his grill at a recent event. “I’ll keep trying until I get it right.”

A brief smile broke through.

These days, his Holstein “Wienie Wagon” keeps him company and keeps him busy. Playing Wiener Meister might as well be his full-time job, although he officially spends his days as the bookkeeper for Ike’s Food and Cocktail in Downtown.

The grill came along after years of helping to organize the Windom Fall Festival. While the annual party is the neighborhood’s biggest fundraiser, Lischeid said a lot of money used to be thrown away on food service rental. So about eight years ago, he decided he’d provide an alternative option: his own services.

After a couple of years of borrowing a grill, he bought his own, along with a silver Ford E-350 XL Super Duty van. He built connections with a local bakery and Ambassador Meat Distributors. He began offering up his grill wherever he’s needed, free of charge.

The neighborhoods pay for the meat — which Lischeid helps get at cost — and the two 40-pound barrels of propane an event requires. In return, worries about buying too many or too few hot dogs, brats or hamburgers are largely gone.

“If they ask for 600, I usually bring 800,” Lischeid said. If only 400 get eaten, that leaves him 400 for another event. The neighborhood only has to pay for the ones it sells.
Lischeid’s method is appreciated. Nary a neighborhood board meeting goes by in the summer where a festival isn’t being planned, and talk of the Wiener Meister is common.

“What I love most about neighborhood festivals is seeing people from the community all come together to volunteer and make it work,” said Linea Palmisano, chairwoman of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council. “Ron is one of those times about 200.”

Despite the absence of profit, Lischeid is growing his efforts. He’s added a business partner — Ike’s cook Joseph Reynolds — and a “Corn Cadillac,” a $12,000 corn roaster. They hope to break even, although Lischeid admitted that’s tough considering they only serve nonprofits and neighborhoods.

So why do it?

Maybe it is the “thank yous” he gets. Maybe his mother was right.

Or maybe his grumblings about not getting enough time on his motorcycle are a passing worry, that his experiences have taught him there are more important things in life.