Thursday, July 30, 2015
Lee Meisel first fell in love with sausages as a teenager growing up in rural North Dakota. It was in the midst of deer season one year that Meisel scored a job making sausages at a small butcher shop in his hometown of Mandan.
There, he learned many of the techniques that he would later use as 715’s resident butcher.
But what Meisel loved most, it turned out, was the people — the early risers who would come for their morning coffee, the groups of men who’d gather there to “shoot the (expletive)” and all the neighbors and friends who passed through the shop’s doors over the course of a day.
“I really enjoyed working the counter and interacting with the customers,” Meisel recalls decades later from behind the counter of his newly opened sausage shop and restaurant, Leeway Franks, 935 Iowa St.
The name, of course, is a play on his own, and also hints at Meisel’s newly acquired “ability to do my own thing.”
The veteran butcher, who worked for three years at 715 before setting up shop at Leeway Franks earlier this month, says the store offers him a chance to do what he does best: make sausage.
He’s taking a “no-fuss, straightforward” approach at Leeway Franks, where he and his staff — a “tight-knit crew” of friends and fellow food-industry professionals Tim McGregor and Kathryn Lunte — are serving up all-natural, locally sourced sausages (no "hot dogs" here, Meisel stresses) all made in-house by Meisel.
The 22-seat space, which is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in the former Daylight Donuts space in the Hillcrest Shopping Center, calls to mind the classic — and sometimes offbeat — treats Meisel enjoyed as a kid, notably the concession stands he and his grandfather encountered along lakes in Saskatchewan during their annual summertime fishing trips.
French fries smothered in gravy became a favorite over the years, he says.
“The idea is to have a personal-memory-driven story,” Meisel says of his vision for Leeway Franks. “I think sausage — and properly prepared sausage — can evoke a lot of memories.”
For now, he’s sticking to the classics, with an emphasis on quality over quantity.
Just about everything at Leeway Franks is made in-house, from the all-beef frankfurters found in Meisel’s signature Classic Coney (a riff on Nathan’s Original Coney Island dog topped with brown mustard, sauteed onions and sauerkraut) to pork bratwursts and Polish sausages.
The menu also includes a breakfast sandwich (with sausage, of course) and a pork chop sandwich. Sides range from french fries to homemade tater tots — with the exception of the breakfast sandwich, which comes with Texas toast.
Meisel says he’s started to integrate some daily specials (German-style currywurst and sweet Italian sausage, for example) and hopes to offer a kids’ menu down the line as well as a few wild-game selections like bison.
But don’t expect to find a veggie dog or even a salad on the menu any time soon, he says.
“We’re not going to be pretend to be something we’re not. I’m a butcher — not a chef,” says Meisel, who also teased the possibility of expanding into a drive-thru at some point. “I don’t see there ever being microgreens on a sausage.”
At Leeway Franks, sausages remain the star of the show. They’re made without fillers, and are wrapped in natural casings (i.e., intestines) that give each bite a little “snap,” Meisel says.
He describes his shop as a “nose-to-tail” operation. Meisel breaks down whole hogs (which he sources, like Leeway Frank’s beef, from Kansas ranchers) in-house, grinds the meat to make sausages and uses the bones to produce a stock for the gravy, which he pours over his fresh-cut french fries.
It’s hard work, to be sure, and not exactly a common practice these days, but for Meisel, whose family boasts three generations of North Dakota cattle ranchers, it’s simply how things should be done. The approach has been a hit so far, as the restaurant has been so busy that Meisel has had trouble keeping up with customer demand for sausages in the first couple weeks of business.
“It comes down to getting the highest-quality ingredients we can and preparing them as best we can,” Meisel says. “We want to get utility out of these animals and do them justice.”