“He had the thing down to a science.”
That’s how longtime customer Bill Miles describes Robert “Skip” Ballweber, the founder and longtime operator of the Wiener Wagon food cart in downtown Vancouver.
His retirement came after 35 years behind the counter at Vancouver’s oldest and longest-running food cart, leaving behind a legacy of fond memories among the downtown community.
“He was kind of a fixture down there,” said Jim Kurfurst, retired founder of the local Butcher Boys shop, the wagon’s primary meat and sausage supplier. “He had quite a following.”
Ballweber died Jan. 28 at age 72, approximately nine years after he turned over the wagon’s reins to longtime employee Robin Povec, who still runs the cart in the same spot today, on the corner of Main and West 12th streets.
Ballweber began operating the cart in either late 1976 or 1977, according to his daughter Lindsay Deacon. The Wiener Wagon was founded in the spring of 1976 by business partners Robert Buell and Ray Stephins, both of whom quit their previous positions as Burgerville managers in order to embark on the cart venture. In October 1976 they sold the cart to Irene Jonas and Alice Berto (Deacon’s mother, now Alice Atha). A short time later, Ballweber bought the cart from Jonas and Berto and began operating it.
Deacon and others who knew Ballweber at the time said it initially seemed like a temporary gig.
“I think it was more of a lark to him at first,” Kurfurst said.
There were no other food carts in Vancouver at the time, Povec said, and the business quickly proved to be a success, drawing a reliably long line of downtown workers at lunchtime. Ballweber enjoyed working as his own boss, Deacon said, so the job ended up becoming permanent.
Deacon and Miles said the wagon’s lasting success was driven in part by the quality of the food and the affordable pricing, as well as its central location. Miles worked in a law office across the street, so he ended up visiting the cart multiple times per week — and it was a short walk from most of the rest of downtown, as well. Even local high-schoolers could often be found ducking out at lunchtime to visit the cart, Miles said.
“The ethos behind it all was that it’s kind of an everyman’s place to eat,” Deacon said.
The wagon’s popularity also stemmed from Ballweber’s own affable and outgoing personality, which regularly turned the wagon’s street corner into a community gathering spot. Especially on sunny days, customers would often stand by the cart for half an hour to chat with Ballweber and others in line.
“He was a huge Blazers fanatic,” Deacon said, so sports talk tended to be a frequent subject among the cart’s lunch crowd.
Kurfurst described a similar dynamic at Butcher Boys — Ballweber would arrive in the morning to purchase supplies for the day, but inevitably he’d end up sticking around to chat with the shop staff.
“He was probably about the first guy walking into the store when we were all there working at 7 in the morning,” Kurfurst said. “We kind of looked forward to doing that.”
Ballweber was also well-known for his support of people without homes or who were struggling financially, often offering to have customers pay him back for a hot dog later or to take a hot dog from the surplus supply left at the end of the day.
Ballweber operated the wagon on the same street corner for almost the entire run, with only a couple of brief moves to other locations. The wagon was able to survive and thrive throughout an era that saw much of the downtown area’s restaurant and retail segment struggling to make it.
The menu has stayed largely the same throughout the wagon’s life, although there have been a few additions. Bill Miles credits himself with first offering Ballweber a jar of jalapenos to try out on the hot dogs. Ballweber was reluctant at first due to the limited space in the cart, Miles said, but the popularity of the topping changed his mind.
The cart has also remained largely the same, apart from a few features that Ballweber built on over the years such as full glass windows, an awning over the serving window, and of course the mascot wiener figure that stands next to the wagon.
“This was his baby, he loved it,” Povec said.
The cart’s design and location will remain unique in Vancouver because they’d run afoul of the city’s current guidelines for food cart operations — but the Wiener Wagon predates all of the regulations.
Povec initially worked for Ballweber at the wagon when she was 17, and she returned a few years before his retirement. Ballweber began to step back from day-to-day operations around 2011, and by the time he was ready to fully retire a few years later, Povec had become the natural successor and was able to purchase the cart.
Downtown Vancouver is in the midst of a restaurant resurgence, and other food carts have joined the downtown lineup, but even after nearly 45 years, the Wiener Wagon still draws the same regular lunch crowd full of both new faces and longtime customers.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the idea for the Wiener Wagon began with Ballweber’s wife and a friend. The cart was created by Robert Buell and Ray Stephins.