It started as a way to deal with the riffraff.
Back in the late 1980s, a local businessman came to Greg Crance with a problem. The businessman had been renting tubes to vacationers on a calm stretch of the Delaware River just south of Frenchtown, New Jersey, and just north of New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Business was fine, but the neighbors were irritated.
The tubers brought snacks and booze for the four-hour cruise, which would have been fine if they hadn’t discarded their refuse on the waterfront lawns of the fancy homes that line the Pennsylvania side of the river. Sometimes, when it stormed, stranded tubers would even clamber onto the banks.
The businessman told Crance he should open a hot dog stand in the middle of the river. It would tempt the tubers to stay toward the other bank instead of crisscrossing the neighbors’ property. Plus, it would keep them from bringing their own food and trashing up the river.
“I said, ‘No, that’s a crazy idea,’ ” Crance recalled.
But within a couple weeks, Crance relented, and even came up with a new name worthy of his novel profession: The Famous River Hot Dog Man.
“We were more or less joking around,” Crance said.
Then, it stuck. For 31 years.
Crance has become kind of famous — at least among the thousands of tubers who float by his stand on busy summer days. The business started on the banks of a small island, but today he and his family sell hot dogs, burgers, nachos, candy bars, chips, and sodas from a floating barge in the middle of the Delaware River.
Tubers float up to the stand, place an order, and then slosh over to a set of plastic picnic tables plunked down in the shallows.
“I’ve had j-o-bs,” Crance said. “And I never want to go back. My office is usually the boat.”
When the weather cooperates, it’s a hell of an office.
Sun beaming. Wind whispering. Propane grill sizzling. And if the heat builds too fast, the shin-deep water is a half-step away.
That said, the weather has to cooperate.
Fifteen years ago, the family opened its own tubing business, Delaware River Tubing. Together with the hot dog stand, they make enough money to get by, but it can be a fickle trade.
The company rakes in about 60 percent of its revenue on summer weekends, which come out to roughly 24 days. If those days are inordinately cold or wet, it can sink the whole season, says Crance’s son, Mathew, the company’s chief operating officer.
“River taketh, river giveth,” he said.
From one year to the next, Mathew said, his salary can fluctuate by tens of thousands of dollars. He and his three brothers help run the business, and Crance, the original hot dog man, hopes it’s profitable enough for all of them to stay in the fold.
The company is constantly searching for ways to solidify its bottom line. The family is flirting with the idea of selling custom inner tubes, Crance said. He and Mathew trekked to China last winter to tour four factories that could produce their original design.
Dealing with the ups and downs of a seasonal business isn’t easy, Crance said, but being on the river helps steady him.
“It still has that soothing effect on me,” he said. “So if you haven’t been out there, and you haven’t tried it, you need to. And you need to come with us and you need to kick back, listen to some music, and let your kids tear the place up. We don’t care. They can’t hurt it.”
Crance says this is more than a business pitch. He considers tubing a form of what he calls “conservation by immersion.” By being in the Delaware, people can develop new appreciation for the river that feeds the region.
“Just letting them have that experience, seeing how clean it is, hopefully thousands of people go back home and realize how important it is to keep it that way,” Crance said.
One dip in the Delaware, Crance says, and you’ll appreciate everything the river offers. And, of course, you can’t appreciate anything fully on an empty stomach.