2003-09-05 / Business
A city legend reaches its 75th year
Max’s is a required stop for many on their trip
to the Shore
By carolyn o’connell
LONG BRANCH — People don’t mind paying a little more when they know they’re getting more.
That simple idea set Max’s Hot Dogs apart in 1928 and launched the restaurant on its way to 75 years of success.
Max’s began in a small location on the boardwalk at the foot of Chelsea Avenue in the 1920s when the average hot dog was selling for a nickel.
Max Altman and Milford "Mel" Maybaum, the original owners, decided to sell a bigger hot dog for a dime and retained Shickhaus as its vendor. That relationship continues to this day with Max’s now being run by three generations of Maybaums.
And while the big hot dog is still popular, Celia Maybaum, known to all as Mrs. Max, may be just as responsible for the restaurant’s popularity.
"Max’s wouldn’t be Max’s without my mother," said Madeline Maybaum, Mrs. Max’s daughter. "She is the heart of the business."
Mrs. Max’s granddaughters Michele and Jennifer describe her as charismatic and lively. "She talks to everyone," said Jennifer.
Over the years, Mrs. Max has earned the title of "Queen of Hot Dogs."
She met the man responsible for her title while she was living in Florida as a widow and raising two children on a hairdresser’s salary. A friend introduced her to Mel, and it was not long before they were married in Miami Beach in 1967.
In an odd twist, Mrs. Max’s daughter Madeline married Robert Maybaum, Mel’s son, one year later.
At the time they married, Mel had long been the sole owner of Max’s and owned several race horses as well.
It was his interest in horses, not his hot dog business, that Mrs. Max thought would become a focal point of their life.
From the start of their marriage, Mrs. Max made her way to all the most popular racetracks and got to know famous trainers and jockeys.
Many years ago, recalled Michele, a horse was named Celia May after her grandmother. More recently, in a race at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, there was a horse named The Hot Dog Queen, in honor of Mrs. Max.
While horse racing has remained an interest, the business has come to be the source of Mrs. Max’s identity, though her husband nearly left the business shortly after they were married.
The location of Max’s went up for sale a short time into their marriage, and Mel was outbid for the property by another local merchant.
"My husband wanted to give up the hot dog business [at that time]," said Mrs. Max, "but I told him not to let it go, that I want to see something come of it."
With that said, Max’s moved to a new location a bit farther south, where it remained successful until a fire destroyed the building. Max’s then moved into a building on the boardwalk owned by Jimmy Liu.
While business wasn’t bad at that location, Mrs. Max said the family just couldn’t catch a break. There were three fires at that site and then a hurricane finally forced the business from that location. During that difficult time, the family also had personal tragedy to deal with, as Mel passed away on Thanksgiving Day 1980, which also happened to be his 75th birthday.
The business continued, and Robert finally found what has been a more permanent site for the restaurant when he purchased the former Surf Lounge and Restaurant on Ocean Boulevard in 1984.
That building had been damaged by a fire that left only one wall standing, but Robert purchased the site and it has been the home of Max’s for almost 20 years.
Today the restaurant remains much as it did when it was first built, with white-washed wood paneled walls, an eating bar with chrome stools wrapped around the kitchen area, booth seating, and a walk-in area for orders to go.
Sitting on a stool looking into the kitchen, a patron can see firsthand the sometimes entertaining squabbles of the Maybaums, which are the inevitable result of a family working together.
"People see a side to our family which in most families you only see behind closed doors," said Jennifer. "We always seem to get in each other’s way," added Michelle.
The walls inside Max’s have years of history hung on them from autographed pictures of movie stars, proclamations, family photographs and stylized period advertising, to signs showing that Max’s menu is more than just hot dogs.
Today you can order the traditional fast food fare along with healthier and less-fattening items and enjoy drinks from a full bar menu.
Mrs. Max, still heavily involved in the business, takes her seat at the cash register when she is not traveling to Europe, Venezuela and the 10 cruises she has embarked on.
"God has been good to me," said Mrs. Max. "I am not very religious, but I do believe in my religion and those of others. I love everyone that comes in here, but I am not afraid to let someone have it [a scolding] if they deserve it."
Mrs. Max points to a photo of Cardinal John O’Connor and tells a story of the encounter she had with him at Max’s seven years ago.
"I had a fixation with the cardinal, who knows why because I am Jewish," said Mrs. Max. "But I had pictures of him in my bedroom and I loved to follow the stories about him in the paper."
Mrs. Max said the cardinal walked into Max’s dressed in plain clothes and accompanied by Cardinal Blythe of Boston. When she looked at Cardinal O’Connor, she said, " ’I know you. Oh my God, you are Cardinal O’Connor. This is just a peace of heaven. What are you doing here?’ The cardinals had such a good time that when they left, a blessing was bestowed on Max’s."
During one of Mrs. Max’s trips to Brazil, she had an opportunity to meet Merv Griffin at a hotel they were both staying at.
"He was so good looking back then," said Mrs. Max. The meeting was not by coincidence. Mrs. Max said she had the concierge put a note in Griffin’s mail slot that said that she (Mrs. Max) would like to meet him. Mrs. Max said she waited patiently in the lobby of the hotel, where she soon met Griffin. During their conversation together, she told Griffin of her family, Max’s and the horses. She then asked as a favor for Griffin to send her an autographed picture.
Mrs. Max said she never thought he would send it, but shortly after her return from Brazil an autographed picture arrived that read, "To Celia, With wonderful memories of Brazil. Best Always."
Mrs. Max said she did not have to travel very far to meet famous people. Walking out on the boardwalk is where she’s met most of the famous, the locals and out-of-towners who still patronize Max’s today.
"It was a beautiful time," said Mrs. Max. "People were friendly and warm and visited from places like Newark, Bloomfield and Jersey City."
Among those who have visited Max’s are Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Red Buttons, Gov. Brendan Byrne, Connie Francis, actors Joe Pantoliano, Joe Pesci, Nick Puccio, John Travolta, Jackie Mason, Dean Martin and singer Frankie Valli.
Max’s had become so popular by the 1970s that it earned several proclamations.
In 1978 Gov. Byrne proclaimed Max’s as the finest hot dog emporium; in 1991 Joan Haberle, secretary of state, proclaimed Mrs. Max as the Queen of Hot Dogs; and in 1992 Gov. James Florio proclaimed that a trip to the Jersey Shore without a stop at Max’s in Long Branch would have been considered an incomplete visit.
In 1995 Gov. Christine Todd Whitman proclaimed "Democrats and Republicans are in agreement on very few issues, but we can all concur that Max’s in Long Branch serves the most outstanding hot dogs in New Jersey."