Remember Ralph’s Hot Dog Cart? The Santa Rosa Food Institution Is Coming Back

In 2020, Ralph Morgenbesser hung up his apron and retired the cart in his garage. Now it’s found a new home in Monte Rio.

For four years, Ralph Morgenbesser’s Courthouse Square Classics hot dog cart was parked in his garage, gathering dust. The iconic weenie wagon (and its owner) were fixtures in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square for over 30 years.

He called his simple fare “soul food,” but it was as much his quick humor and stories that made a much-loved lunchtime oasis for lawyers, bankers, merchants and, often, those down on their luck.

In 2020, Morgenbesser hung up his apron and retired the cart, becoming a relished footnote in Santa Rosa’s culinary history. At 79, he was ready for retirement.

A few months ago, one of Morgenbesser’s former employees-turned-entrepreneur approached him with a plan.

Milli Cannata, now a real estate agent, wanted to buy the well-loved cart and turn it into a business incubator for kids. Turns out the old dogcart was about to learn some new tricks.

Ralph Morgenbesser of Ralph's Courthouse Classics hot dogs and Milli Cannata of SLYC Kidz pose in front of the iconic cart that he donated. (Photo: Milli Cannata)
Ralph Morgenbesser of Ralph’s Courthouse Classics hot dogs and Milli Cannata of SLYC Kidz pose in front of the iconic cart that he donated. (Photo: Milli Cannata)

Instead of selling it, Morgenbesser donated his self-contained hot dog business to Cannata’s charity, SLYC Kidz (Sustainable Living Youth Co-op), which offers after-school mentorship and teaches business skills to young people — the same skills Cannata learned from Morgenbesser as a teen.

“When I was a teenager and walking around downtown looking for jobs, he hired me and taught me how to run a business,” said Cannata of Morgenbesser’s other downtown food business, Santa Rosa Subs (closed in 2007).

“Opportunities like (working for Ralph) kept me off the streets,” she said.

A new west county home

Last Monday, with Morgenbesser’s blessing, the cart was transported to the Monte Rio Theater, a historic movie and music hall that’s one of the few entertainment venues in rural west county.

Though it needs significant work to get it re-permitted and in working order, the cart will be displayed at upcoming summer events to raise awareness and funds for the project.

“On Thursday nights, we’ll have it out for music events,” Cannata said. The first event will take place June 20, with future gatherings through the summer.

Hopefully Morgenbesser will make a guest appearance or two.

“I’m so glad to get him out sharing his love and passion. He just has this way of lighting up a room,” she said.

Glad to see his old partner find new life, Morgenbesser recounted fond memories of his years under the redwood trees of Courthouse Square.

“I was the biggest thing to happen to Santa Rosa since they got a ZIP code,” he said of his food businesses. He’s clung to his blustery “I’m walkin’ here” Brooklyn accent since moving to California in 1967. But like many New Yorkers, his direct tone masks a marshmallow-soft heart.

“The cart was a sanctuary, and some days I gave away more food than I sold,” he said.

Ralph's Courthouse Classics,- Ralph Morgenbesser, owner, of chats with his regulars during the lunch hour.
Ralph Morgenbesser, owner of Ralph’s Courthouse Classics in Santa Rosa, chats with his regulars during the lunch hour, Friday, April 14, 2006. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Helping those in need

As a longtime advocate for addiction recovery, Morgenbesser felt a kinship with people who faced challenging situations and frequently gave food to anyone hungry. For years, he shuttled people to recovery centers and 12-step meetings.

“I had troubles in my youth,” he said. “I wanted to give back what I learned. I always told people there was a life after drugs and alcohol. There’s always recovery.“

Even in retirement, old friends and patrons frequently recognize him around town.

“I gotta tell you, I see people, and they tell me stories about how I helped them,” he said.

Soon to turn 83, Morgenbesser said he’s been enjoying swimming, playing dominoes with friends and walking his dogs (the canine kind) — but can’t help advocating for the cart’s future hot dog vendors.

“Don’t be a meanie; buy yourself a weenie,” he said, echoing his favorite Courthouse Square sales pitch.