His hot dogs are legend, his spirit eternal: Leonard Montuori, or “Big Lenny” as he’s often called, is Rutland’s premier smooth-talking, sauce-wielding, self-made icon who, for 15 years, made his home on the side of Route 7 selling hot dogs, kielbasa, sodas and ice-cream.
But Lenny and Susan Montuori, before their first full year running “Big Lenny’s Inside Job” on Strongs Avenue, were hit with a staggering reality this November: Susan was diagnosed with cancer, while Lenny’s sister, Ann, was undergoing surgery for jaw cancer.
In early December, Lenny decided to close the restaurant for a brief period to recuperate and try to get the family’s feet back on the ground.
But their struggles weren’t over yet: Shortly after, Lenny’s doctors found blockages in his heart. Though he’s a candidate for open-heart bypass surgery, the cardiologist said a six-month recovery period would be a significant hardship in addition to everything the Montuoris are going through right now, so four stents were implanted instead to get him through.
Lenny undergoes cardio therapy several times a week, and his wife is going through chemotherapy.
“There’s going to be a miracle,” Lenny Montuori said. “I believe in miracles.”
Though Lenny’s heart is beginning to heal, his soul sits with its shades pulled and chairs up, steamers empty and coolers off, awaiting its master’s return.
“To put two people in here without me, it’s like $200 a day overhead,” Montuori said. “Do you know how many hot dogs you have to sell to make $200? ... The first 50 customers that come in here, that’s the break-even point.”
Thanks to a GoFundMe account started by Carolyn Laird titled “Some Love for Big Lenny,” over $2,500 has been raised by 53 donors toward a $20,000 goal to help with restaurant and medical expenses for the Montuori family.
“These are some good people who have paid it forward many times for others,” Shelley and Sonny Poremski commented on the GoFundMe page. “God Bless Susan and Lenny.”
“He’s a good family friend, actually,” said Justin Nalbach, whose family owns Cara Mia’s Pizza on Strongs Ave. “I’ve known him my whole life, my dad’s known him 25 years.”
Montuori is famous around town, Nalbach said, and he frequently fields questions about how Montuori and his family are doing from curious customers who peek into his storefront wondering where he is.
“I hope they get better, and he gets to open back up again,” Nalbach said.
The highest donation as of Monday was $500 by an anonymous donor, according to the website. Montuori walked through his shop last week, recounting the stories of almost every person smiling out from the photographs on his walls — from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to a little blonde-haired Logan Moore, who Lenny said just turned 20.
Montuori said his dream would be to create enough jobs for everyone to have a spot in his store. But even if he struck it rich, he said he’d still rather be there, behind the counter, slinging sauerkraut and cold soda to his loyal customers.
“I want to come back here and see my people,” Montuori said. “We have to get through this ... I have to get better.”
And when he and his wife fell ill, Montuori said the people he fed flocked to his aid, offering emotional support through messages, phone calls and coffee dates.
Montuori especially praised the hospitality of his landlord, Joe Giancola, who offered assistance while he and his wife went through treatments.
“I said to Joe, I said, ‘I don’t have nothing ... but I can’t lose the store,” Montuori said. “Joe said, ‘Don’t worry, I know the landlord.’ And that’s Joe.”
Montuori’s dream began with a cart 15 years ago, which he worked in the mornings and afternoons before he cooked at the Red Clover Inn at night.
In the mid-2000s, Montuori invested in a larger trailer with the help of a $12,000 loan and started relying on credit cards to help field the cost of his growing venture. Last year, he acquired the space on Strongs Avenue, and made it his mission to make Big Lenny’s Inside Job a place for all, whether you could pay or not.
After $20,000 in renovations to tailor-make the restaurant and customize it with black-and-white photographs of movie stars, Rutland throughout the 20th century, circus posters and 1950s-style soda shop pictures, Big Lenny’s Inside Job saw swells of customers craving his famous sausages, homemade relishes and giant soft pretzels.
“I have these homeless guys come in, and I tell them, ‘I got a sandwich with your name on it,’” Montuori said. “These guys didn’t ask to be where they are. Some of them are there but for the grace of God ... So big deal. You give somebody a hot dog or a soda ... people turn their cheeks on them, but there’s no reason to. They’re good people.”
Montuori said though many have offered to help run the shop, teaching the flow of the restaurant is more than instructing a handful of volunteers how to make a hot dog.
“I’m not a delegator, I’m a doer,” Montuori said. “You gotta make every dish as if your mom was sitting out front, and you didn’t want to embarrass her.”
But the time has come, Lenny admitted, to accept a helping hand.
“My dream is to be able to come back to work, and to start generating money again,” Montuori said. “I can’t do it alone ... but there are so many other people who need help in this town.”
With some family moving closer to home, and the support of the people around him, Montuori said he hopes to make it back in the shop at least one day a week starting in May, and hopes to sell his old trailer to help defray some of their credit card debt.
Hopefully, the people would keep coming as they always have: Montuori told stories of people who would leave for decades, only to stop home for a visit and be greeted by Big Lenny and their favorite hot dog just the way they always ordered it.
“I touched a lot of lives in this business ... in my 40 years in Rutland, it’s amazing,” Montuori said tearfully. “I love Rutland. People complain about Rutland, but it’s a good place. I’m seeing kids who want to come back now, and they’re doing a lot of good things.”