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Until we eat again
Hot Dog Mike heads to his home state to take over the family business.
Do you remember where you were when you first heard of Hot Dog Mike? I was at a bar in Hillcrest around closing time, when inebriated patrons were paying their tabs and scurrying out the front door to get in line at a cart across the street in a bank parking lot. Having just moved back to Little Rock, I asked a friend what it was all about; she looked at me like I’d just personally offended her: “That’s Hot Dog Mike.”
This was in December of 2010, back when Mike Juiliano was still doing a lot of late-night business in order to gain an initial following. He was not yet the local icon that he is now, but the cart was starting to catch on. Now, two years later, and after two and a half years in business, Hot Dog Mike is packing up shop.
On Dec. 31 he announced that he’d be moving back to his home state of New Jersey at the end of January. His plan is to take over the family business, which means managing the antiques shop his father has run for the past 30 years. It’s what Mike describes as “an American Pickers-style, quote-unquote junk shop.”
When his father was faced with some health complications and decided to retire, the family was left with the decision to either close the shop or find someone else to manage it. Mike saw this as an opportunity. “We could shut it down, or I thought maybe I could give it a go, and I think that would make [my dad] pretty proud,” he said.
Over the past two years, Mike’s successful business plan and brand earned him a loyal following. He said he plans to try and incorporate a few of those ideas which have helped Hot Dog Mike succeed into his father’s store.
But Mike has done more for central Arkansas than sell hot dogs. He’s been at the forefront of the food truck scene in the area, though some have pointed out he’s not technically a food truck — “mobile food vendor” might be more accurate.
“There were guys doing it, but I helped bring it into the public eye a little more, maybe,” he said. “I remember when I first started setting up at night I’d have people looking at it like ‘What is that? Do I eat off that, really?’ You never get to see the kitchen at your favorite restaurant. Here, you’re looking right at it.”
It seems people in central Arkansas got used to seeing their food prepared right in front of them; a variety of food trucks picked up popularity in the years that Hot Dog Mike has been doing business. It’s hard to tell if he had a hand in that, or if it was simply a right time, right place kind of thing.
“I do think I helped people understand that [truck food] can be good. It’s a hard business. Without people trusting it, trying it, food trucks can come and go. It takes a lot to run them.”
For now, Mike plans on continuing the legacy of Hot Dog Mike up north. He’ll set up a cart in front of the shop, though the menu (as well as the cart) might look a little different, a little simpler than they do here.
“There’s a lot of hot dog places up there, and they maybe do it one or two ways, and that’s what that specific place is known for and you go there to get that hot dog,” he said. “So I’m imagining mine might be something similar.” He envisions a Mike’s Way dog that everyone will grow to love instead of his currently more extensive menu.
The antiques shop is in a prime location on a busy street, so the dogs should do well there, he said. And a hot dog cart is kind of retro, a bit of a throwback — and that’s what people are going to find at an antiques shop, too. The two businesses might end up complementing each other quite well. It’s an image Mike admits is “kind of poetic.”
Though it will be hard to say goodbye to the friends and success he’s had in Arkansas, Mike said he welcomes the slower pace that will come with it. “I think I’m going to take a break from Twitter and social media for a little while, that has become awesome and a curse at the same time, ’cause it’s constant for me. It’s a lot of work.”
After all, it’s more than just hot dogs that people love about Hot Dog Mike. It’s his personality, his charisma — it’s Mike. He’s become a local celebrity. “I just always try to take it as a compliment,” he said about people coming up to him in unexpected places, wanting to take pictures with him, talk food or just catch up.
“I think the level of friendliness and open arms was a pleasant surprise,” Mike said about his first impression of Arkansas. “I didn’t expect it that much but I’ve made a ton of friends here.”
Don’t worry, Mike promises to come visit. And he plans on keeping his licenses alive so that when he’s in town, Hot Dog Mike is ready to go.