Small cart, big heart : Hot Dog Mike brings new flavor to Little Rock
It was a sunny day in Little Rock, and people of all ages were walking around the streets of the Heights neighborhood enjoying the unusually warm December afternoon.
On the corner of Pierce and R streets, a small hot dog cart stood under the overhang of Iberia Bank.
Owner Michael Juiliano, better known as “Hot Dog Mike,” was taking a break from his usual jokes and friendly conversations with passing customers, as he drank the final sips of his iced coffee from Starbucks and leaned against the warm brick wall of the bank.
Juiliano said that business had been good that day. “It’s always good,” he said.
The 40-year-old Manville, N.J., native has quickly become a fresh taste in Little Rock. Moving his cart to different locations, raising money for local charities and inventing unique recipes, he has garnered a broad following since he started on June 1.
A self-proclaimed “rebel and risk-taker,” Juiliano said he tries not to make life plans too often. Rather, if there is something he wants to do, such as quit his job and buy a hot dog cart, he said he just does it.
“Everything I’ve put my mind to I’ve made it happen,” he said.
Juiliano experienced a spectrum of career opportunities before opening a hot dog cart.
He was DJ Mikey J for 10 years after graduating from high school, until he moved to Asheville, N.C., on a whim in 1997. With little experience but the desire for a lifestyle change, he attended a job fair at a hotel.
“That’s when I started to realize, you know, you could really go far in life if you just talk to people,” he said.
The hotel hired Juiliano to do reservation sales, and he continued to work in hospitality for another 10 years in addition to doing freelance photography on the side.
“I like to live life and do different things. Photography has always been a hobby,” he said. After he was laid off from hospitality following 9/11, Juiliano decided to make a living with his photography.
Juiliano’s experience with hospitality eventually brought him to Little Rock. While working in Asheville, he helped re-open the Biltmore Estate. He said it was there he met Michael Chaffin, the current chief operating officer of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.
Chaffin later called Juiliano and asked him to be an opening consultant for the Capital Hotel re-opening. Juiliano said what was supposed to be a two-week stay ended up being a little over two years.
It was during that time Juiliano met his future wife, Kristie (also known as “Mrs. Hot Dog Mike”), who convinced him to stay permanently. He married Kristie on June 4, just three days after opening his hot dog cart, which he said he bought to “fill in the blanks” from his photography.
Juiliano may have gotten the entrepreneurial bug and sense of business ethics from his father, who owns a small antique shop in Manville that Juiliano described as “real personal kind of junk shop.”
“I’ve always said … when I go into business for myself, I really want to just be one-on-one, personal, get to know my public, hang out with people and have fun … that’s really the only business model I have,” he said.
One reason Juiliano said he started selling hot dogs in particular was the nostalgia.
“I’m from New Jersey; they’re everywhere,” he said, adding that he and his grandfather would often visit a hot dog cart along the New Jersey shore.
“I thought maybe this town could use that type of thing,” he said.
The iconic cultural staple of “the hot dog man” is something Juiliano said he enjoyed both as a child and eventually as a bar-goer. He reminisced that in Little Rock, he has walked out of bars late at night and realized that “there’s nothing [to eat] after 10 o’clock.”
“I also cater to the late-night, intoxicated public. They appreciate it – they don’t have to drive. [It’s a] community service,” he joked.
During the interview, several regulars and acquaintances stopped by the cart at the end of Juiliano’s shift for a late lunch. An Iberia employee even ran out of the building and handed him some cash, for what she said was her second dog of the day.
Juiliano attributes much of his success to social media. Currently, 828 fans on Facebook and 909 followers on Twitter are interacting with Hot Dog Mike, as he keeps them updated daily of his locations, media coverage and causes.
His cart is not the only one in town, but Juiliano said the novelty dogs and the experience keep his customers coming back for more.
“I try to make it fun for people. I do contests, I do silliness, I bust chops… I allow people to poke fun at me. We just make it fun… I want to do something a little different, so I do come up with crazy hot dogs,” he said.
Juiliano claims that he has not yet had an unsuccessful recipe. His “Woo Pig Hot Dog” recipe, garnished with bacon, coleslaw and barbecue sauce, has been one of his best sellers so far.
Formerly called the “Razorback Hot Dog,” the dog got its name change from an enthused customer at a Razorbacks game who shouted, “Woo pig hot dog!” while waiting in line. Mikey liked it, so it stuck.
“I do think about hot dogs a lot, as scary as that seems,” he joked. “I’ll be eating something and I go, ‘I wonder if this makes a good hot dog?’ and then I go home and try it … next thing you know it’s on the menu.”
Juiliano actually does serve the community with his gourmet dogs. Whether it is for a business, charity organization or an individual cause, he goes where he is needed.
On Nov. 30, he visited UALR and said he was “honored” by the turnout.
Juiliano said that it was his understanding that he was the first outside vendor at UALR in 20 years. According to Juiliano, Daniel McPherson, the annual giving manager in the Office of Development at UALR, spotted Hot Dog Mike on South University Avenue one day and sought to have him on campus.
In the article “We Like Mike” on the Office of Communications’ Sights and Sounds Blog, McPherson wrote, “In addition to serving the masses for lunch, Hot Dog Mike’s visit inspired a few UALR employees to make a gift to the campus campaign.”
“That day … I almost cried,” Juiliano told The Forum. “There were people lined up around the building. I just couldn’t believe it – it was cold out; it was windy. One guy drove from Pine Bluff, said he waited in line an hour and it was worth it.
“So I just was blown away, and I couldn’t believe the amount of support …. Money aside, and fun aside, I mean, I was just honored that that many people were interested.”
Juiliano also uses his business for charity. Calling it “Hot Dogs for a Cause,” one day out of the month, he gives all proceeds from his three-hour lunch shift to a charitable cause. For the duration of that month, he also runs a “limited edition” hot dog recipe in the charity’s honor and gives part of the proceeds to it.
He has peddled his dogs for the non-profit organization C.A.L.L. (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime), the Epilepsy Foundation, and for cancer research.
“I have a big heart and … if something grabs ahold of me then I’ll try to do something for them,” he said.
Throughout this month, Juiliano will station his cart outside of the Rock Town Distillery warehouse during lunch Mondays through Thursdays to help the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation drive, which collects public donations of new toys as holiday gifts for needy children.
“We’re going to try to get a lot of toys,” Juiliano said. “We’re going to give hot dogs for donations.” He said he would accept toys or cash donations.
Juiliano also said he also hopes to start dedicating Fridays to feeding the homeless.
“I think you need to give back …,” he said. “If I can give some of my time, then hopefully somebody will give me some of theirs.”
He added that the only thing he wants out of life is to create something that will make people remember him as a good person.
Juiliano’s optimism carries over into his personal life as well. When asked what frustrates him the most, he said, “the need to eat and sleep.” He said he would rather be playing on Facebook, watching movies or just otherwise living and working.
If anything else happens to get him down throughout the day, such as bad traffic or a surly customer, he always has something with him to cheer him up: a picture on his cell phone of Kristie wearing his glasses and a big grin.
“You know, I think the one thing that makes me happy is knowing that I’ve been good to people in my life, and now people are being good to me. I feel blessed.”