Hot Dog! Tess & Freddie Now Wiener Magnates

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There's a new outdoor eating establishment in town, and its managers have brainstormed their own commercial slogan:

"Roger Dodger's Chili Dogs ... The only hot dog to ever hit a home run!"

OK, the slogan may not be Madison-Avenue slick. But neither are the managers.

Tess Johnson and her son, Freddie Jones who were homeless and in the process of being booted out of the national forest in August never dreamed they'd be open-air dining entrepreneurs by the end of September.

So far, they've taken their brand-new hot dog cart out for one "dry run" in front of the Tonto Apache Market, and the business prospects are looking good.

"We made $30, so it went great!" Tess said. "It's the first time we've ever had a job that didn't involve digging, carrying and lugging things around.

"We're taking the cart out this Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the Pow Wow," she said, referring to Tonto Apache's first tribal Pow Wow today (Friday) through Oct. 1 at the Payson Event Center.

"After that, we'll do it every day."

Tess and Freddie could have taken the chili-dog stand out sooner, but Tess had more important things on her mind.

"The temperatures have started to go down, and if I don't get all my plants planted around the church, they'll turn into ice cubes in their pots."

Things change

It was just last month when U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and Gila County Task Force agents found Tess, 51, and the mentally disabled Freddie, 31, living in the national forest south of Payson where they'd been for more than three years, creating vegetable and flower gardens, rock walls and walkways, and an all-natural covered garden-patio.

At that time, the pair was cited for "illicitly occupying national forest for residential purposes" and ordered to move out as soon as they could restore the forest to its natural state.

Despite offers for the pair to live rent-free on land not only in Payson, but elsewhere across the U.S. and Canada, a suitable arrangement was elusive until the Tonto Apache Tribal Council agreed to let Tess and Freddie stay on the reservation, on land adjacent to the Full Gospel Family Church.

"I know now that I was supposed to come over here to take care of the church grounds," Tess said. "I had the plants and they had the water. It was a perfect match!

"You know, people always look at each other and think 'I'm better than you because of this or this or this.' Well, all of our souls are made out of the same material. And they know that here at this church."

Spiritual endorsements

"We've helped a lot of people through here, but Tess is quite different," said Pastor Roger Martin of the Full Gospel Family Church. "We've all learned an awful lot from her. She loves the simple things, she's content and you don't see a lot of that in this world. It's been very refreshing having her here.

"And Freddie is a very bright young man and a hard worker. He does what he's told, he's not argumentative, yet he's got a mind of his own.

"These people are a tremendous asset," Martin said. "We're getting compliments on how the church has been beautified by the flowers outside, and how much cleaner it is inside. They've been attending church, and they're full of joy. Freddie is in my 'amen corner.' He 'amens' me when I'm preaching."

It was Martin and the tribe who supplied Tess and Freddie with the equipment and supplies for their new business.

"They're using a state-of-the-art hot dog cart, all stainless steel and approved by the town. We've put a red-and-white tent up by the Tonto Apache Market, and that's where they'll sell hot dogs three or four days out of the week from 10 a.m. to 2:30."

Martin then corrected himself. These are not mere hot dogs, he said, but "the best gourmet chili dogs you can get anywhere in the state of Arizona, with a sauce designed after the original Coney Island chili dog. And there's a money-back guarantee. If you don't think it's a good chili dog after the first bite, we'll refund your money and feed the rest to the dogs."

"That's not gonna happen," Freddie interjected. "I ate three the other day, and they were good."

Tess and Freddie will use the church as their base of operations, Martin said. "This is a legitimate business for them. They're partners, they'll get a percentage, and what's left over will go to the church."

Auto pilots

Although Tess and Freddie are entering the world of business without some of the usual amenities, such as a telephone, they have acquired one necessity: a used but clean and working Chevy van, also given to them by the church.

"It's completely legal; I just have to get my drivers' license and insurance," Tess said.

That donation has freed up others. The Payson Lions Club, under the leadership of President George Assyd, started an auto fund for Tess and Freddie, into which $660 had been deposited at last count.

"Now that they have transportation, that money is theirs," Assyd said. "While I personally would like to see them just leave it in the bank for emergencies or maintenance of the van, it's completely up to them."

All of this adds up to a wholly unexpected string of good luck for Tess and Freddie, who are not taking their blessings or new friends for granted.

"It really is so wonderful," Tess said. "A little over a month ago, we were alone in the forest, not knowing where we could go or where we'd end up. And now, well, we already feel like we're part of a family here. And we are! We're all part of the family of God."

Pastor Martin, though, gently refused Tess and Freddie's effusive thanks for offering them so many helping hands.

"I am a guest on the reservation, too," he said. "So we have something in common, along with the other homeless families who've been given a place to stay here, near the church. We are all benefiting from the tribe's great generosity.

"They allow us to minister to everybody. When people come to us, we don't give them $20 and tell them to go away. We give them a place to stay."

Freddie, for one, is very happy about that.

"It's great here," he said. "I'm doing work that I enjoy. I'm doing the best I can. I really wanted to stay in the forest, and we're still in the forest. Everything has worked out."

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