The red neon glow of the Wiener World sign could be seen everywhere. For decades, it was a landmark on Smithfield Street in Downtown Pittsburgh, casting pink hues on the “Two Andys” mural that rested just above its perch on Strawberry Way. The sign could be spotted during car chase scenes in Hollywood blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises and Jack Reacher.
That instantly recognizable neon sign, familiar to so many Pittsburghers over the years, apparently transferred ownership in 2015 when the building was sold. In 2017, Wiener World's new owners Dennis and Melody Scott changed a few things, like adding a made-to-order deli, but for the most part they have kept the place — and the sign — the same.
For the first year, things were good. Old customers kept coming, new ones became fans, and online reviews were solid. But in 2018, Dennis received a surprising letter from the former owner’s lawyer. Seemingly out of nowhere, they were requesting hundreds of dollars a month to use the Wiener World name and sign. Scott felt like he was being squeezed.
“There are Wiener Worlds all over the United States,” says Scott, noting the improbability of obtaining a copyright. “He didn’t really have a leg to stand on. He was just being spiteful, trying to get blood from stone.”
Ray Auslander owned and operated the Wiener World on Smithfield Street for about 50 years. Throughout his career, he opened multiple Wiener World restaurants in the Pittsburgh region, and even had three locations Downtown. He developed a garlic seasoning recipe for his locally produced hot dogs and built a big local fan base. But by the 2010s, only one Wiener World remained and Auslander was pushing 70.
So, in 2015, Auslander sold the building and business to Yuriy Bekman, who owns a jewelry store on the same block. Auslander retired and moved to Florida, hopeful Wiener World would be preserved as Pittsburghers knew it.
“I wanted it to be run the same way and keep it going,” said Auslander in a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. “I mean, it’s a little sentimental when you run a business for 50 years.”
Bekman still owns the building, but he sold the business to the Scotts in 2017.
The Scotts have run other restaurants Downtown for years, including Market Street Deli in the PPG Place food court, and decided to bring that deli experience to Wiener World. The hot dog joint now serves brisket and roasted chicken, in addition to the classic menu of hot dogs, fries, and, in the summer, soft-serve ice cream.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly. Bekman says he was happy with how the Scotts ran the business. In 2017, Auslander apparently still had admiration for his old restaurant, sharing a screenshot on Facebook of the scene in Jack Reacher where the Wiener World sign makes an appearance.
But things took a wrong turn in September of 2018, and the ruckus centered on the iconic sign. Scott says this is when he received a letter from Auslander’s lawyer, requesting $500 a month to use the Wiener World name and the sign.
After Scott consulted his lawyer, who communicated with Auslander, Scott says they discovered Auslander didn’t own a copyright to the Wiener World name.
Even so, Scott made a counter offer to Auslander out of good faith. He offered to pay $2,000 a year to use the sign, which he liked and wanted to keep. Scott says that offer was rejected. He then discovered that no agreement about the neon sign had been made when Auslander sold the building in 2015. The talks between the two parties ceased.
On Sun., Feb. 24, things got worse.
Ryan Clark, a friend of Scott’s and an employee with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, saw someone on a bucket ladder removing the sign. He contacted Scott, but by the time he arrived, the sign had already been sliced up and removed.
“I think it was a shame that it was taken down. It was such a cool, out-of-the-ordinary thing,” says Clark. “It added a middle ground between the modern, utilitarian architecture of the business building and the older churches and buildings in the area. It was eye-catching.”
Pittsburgh Police spokesperson Chris Togneri says a report was filed about the sign being removed. According to the report, at 1 p.m. on Feb. 24, a contractor told police that he was paid $1,200 by Auslander to remove the sign. When the contractor was informed Auslander no longer owned the building, he ceased the work, but since the sign was already partially removed, it was agreed that the sign should be completely removed for public safety reasons.
Scott says he suspects the sign was removed because he didn’t agree to pay Auslander.
Auslander didn’t return several requests for comment for this story.
Scott was caught completely off-guard when the sign was removed without warning. He thought he and Auslander both understood the struggles and needs of owning small, independent restaurants.
“It was something that I never thought I had to deal with. It was iconic, it was in the Batman movie,” says Scott. “There was no solidarity. It just seemed really petty.”
And Auslander might not know it, but it appears Scott feels much the same way about Wiener World as Auslander did.
In 2015, Auslander told the P-G that he was supportive of Downtown’s redevelopment but wanted to see changes come to Smithfield Street, too. “There are other areas that need work,” he said of the corridor.
Scott echoes this sentiment. “I don’t think enough of the city’s microscope is on this part of Downtown,” says Scott of the Smithfield Street corridor. “[The stores here] kind of get overlooked.”
Scott says restaurants like Wiener World need to be maintained in a Downtown that is increasingly courting fine-dining or chain restaurants. He says he added the deli to broaden options for Downtown diners, but recognizes the importance of Wiener World's loyal, longtime customer base, too. He will always sell hot dogs.
Scott recently replaced the sign and filed a state business name license under Wiener World Pittsburgh. The new sign still says Wiener World in red letters, but it includes a seal inspired by the punk band The Ramones. (Scott says he’s an “old school punk.”)
Scott says he would love to buy another neon sign, but he can’t afford the $12,000 price tag to bring in a new one, let alone the permits he would need to install it.
Bekman, who still owns the building that houses Wiener World, has no hard feelings over the loss of the sign, but was hoping that it would have stayed up.
“It's a shame it went a different direction than everyone wanted it to,” says Bekman.