Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
This is one answer: Hot Dog Mike saw a niche, and he filled it.
The question is built on several others: Why does Hot Dog Mike have more than 1,000 Twitter followers? Why does Hot Dog Mike sell T-shirts (and not just T-shirts, but T-shirts that you probably covet)? Why does Hot Dog Mike appear on the evening news, on two networks no less, every time he unveils a new hot dog creation? And, ultimately: Why are Hot Dog Mike and his small hot dog cart the most exciting culinary development in Little Rock since the birth of cheese dip?
Another answer, sort of: Hot Dog Mike has been preparing to be Hot Dog Mike for a long time. He grew up in New Jersey, where his friends knew him as Michael Juiliano. He speculated to a reporter on a recent post-lunchtime rush that growing up in Jersey gave him "the edge to be on the streets and have a good time." Before he took on hot-dogging full-time, he worked for a DJ and, later, for more than a dozen years, in the hotel business. He moved to Little Rock, several years back, as an opening consultant at the Capital Hotel. Working as a DJ and in the hospitality business made him comfortable in front and amongst crowds, he said. Plus, before all that, he went school for ad design: "I didn't finish, but I learned enough I guess for a hot dog cart."
Which prompts another answer: Hot Dog Mike is something of a marketing whiz. Which is to say, his brand is bigger than yours. It starts with his name and his uniform. You will not see Hot Dog Mike slinging hot dogs without a fedora atop his head and thick, Elvis Costello-style black-framed glasses on his face. Naturally, the Hot Dog Mike T-shirt, conceived in part by Rock City Outfitters, is a drawing of an anthropomorphized hot dog, wearing thick glasses and a fedora.
As far as the presentation for the menu goes, it's fairly straightforward. There are variations on the Chicago dog, there's a polish dog, there's one that's topped with Fritos, chili and cheese and another, the awesomely named the WooPigHotDog, with bacon, slaw, onion, BBQ and Sriracha (it put Hot Dog Mike on the map, according to the menu). But then there are limited edition dogs that come and go. Some are seasonal. Some are tied to catered functions. Some, like his latest creation, TheCAPITALdog (cream cheese, relish and sport peppers), are limited simply for the sake of creating buzz.
On a recent Friday, after the lunchtime rush, Hot Dog Mike explained to a reporter his creative process.
"I'm like Eminem with hot dogs — you know how he scribbles in a notebook all the time? — I always think of new ones and I always write them down. So I have hundreds that I've thought of, but I only roll out as needed. My wife gets mad because I'm always like, 'I wonder if this would be good on a hot dog?' everywhere we go. Because if it seems like it might go, I'll try it."
In the spring, Hot Dog Mike will roll out a second cart. He sees a future where an army of Hot Dog Mikes roam the streets of Little Rock.
Which leads us to what might be the ultimate answer: Hot Dog Mike has a vision.
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