Imagine a midwestern town with a renowned university. The population of about 114,000 is diverse, with many foreign-born students, faculty, researchers, and staff. Family friendly and rich with cultural offerings, the town often ranks high on lists of the best places to live. A few steps from Division Street, so named because it separates the town from the university campus, is a small, red hot dog stand called Le Dog, best known today for its lobster bisque and over 240 soups that revolve on the ever-changing menu. Only two hundred square feet in size, Le Dog is an Ann Arbor landmark.
Soups were not even on the menu in 1979 when Le Dog began. That summer, while in town visiting my parents, I noticed a boarded-up refreshment stand called Karamel Korn Kastle and suddenly had a vision of the University of Michigan campus covered with hot dog carts—forty thousand students enjoying “tube steaks”! Not long after, my first cart arrived from New York, and with the little refreshment stand as my base, Le Dog was born (the name derived from lemonade and hot dogs, the only two items on the menu).
Michigan is neither Florida nor Hawaii. The temperature can reach 90 degrees on some days and drop to minus 10 on others. These extremes do not make it easy to push a four-hundred-pound cart twenty blocks. On winter days it was easier to pass hot dogs to customers through an 18″ by 24″ take-out window and stay relatively warm. By spring I had abandoned my plan of ordering a second cart. The refreshment stand kitchen, though small, was cozy; the overhead, manageable; the sidewalk, busy with pedestrians. But customers were rare. The menu, I realized, was all wrong. So I decided to introduce items from my prior hotel and restaurant experience. Surely Ann Arborites would go for that.
Soon, tantalizing odors wafted out from the small window to tickle the noses of passersby: roast duck, veal tarragon, cassoulet, bouillabaisse. If customers came early enough, they could order pheasant under Styrofoam, Hungarian paprikash, Cajun rice, triple imported chocolate shakes, or avocado soup with champagne. Reservations were necessary to order these specials, and I adhered to a strict “Ten minutes late = No Show” policy; those who arrived late found their lunches already sold. Even though Le Dog was open only for lunch, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I worked ten- to twelve-hour days. The specials took a long time to prepare and serve to long lines of customers with limited time for lunch. So this menu was also wrong.
Even a small gourmet hot dog stand must begin with a philosophy. In order to establish your place, you have to examine the past: what works, what doesn’t. And you have to figure out what you want to achieve. From there you find a niche and fill it with your passion—cooking! But do not complicate it. Follow the kiss principle: Keep It Small and Simple.
I figured out that good cooking is a good business plan. Customers will recognize it and come running. Not everyone, of course. I can’t make food for everyone. At Le Dog I serve no pizza. Le Dog has no hamburgers, and the last line on the menu states emphatically: “NO Coke, NO Pepsi, NO Pop or Soda. EVER!!” Le Dog’s fame currently rests on soups. Hundreds of soups. French, continental, Asian, seafood, vegetarian, bisques, chowders and stews, one-pot dishes—anything I can serve in a bowl. The soups served at Le Dog are named after the main ingredient or the culture associated with the name. I don’t have to explain gumbo or cream of mushroom soup in great detail, but for firedragon soup I list the ingredients. And I don’t hesitate to list ingredients like rutabaga, hominy, or couscous on my fast-food menu, even though they make some customers wary.
Le Dog does not advertise. We are so low key that I have even turned down a filming request from the Food Network (my marketing professor at Michigan State University wanted to rescind my degree when he found that out). I want my patrons, some of whom have four lunches a week at Le Dog, to spread the word by mouth. Wouldn’t most restaurants be better off spending their dollars on what goes on the plate instead of on advertising? My customers include the bank teller from across the street, the president of the university, and the mayor of Ann Arbor. No one has time for a leisurely luncheon; after all, most Americans get only a half-hour break. That is why Le Dog is open now from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The line really moves. It’s slow food, but fast!
I use local ingredients whenever I can. As a youngster in post–World War II Hungary, my contact with imported produce was very limited. Around New Year’s I might see a lemon or two; oranges were even rarer; and bananas existed only in picture books. But as a first grader, I could already name ten or twelve varieties of apples, peel and precut most vegetables, and stand in line for an hour for a loaf of bread or a liter of milk. And we had variety in our menu. Meat came from rabbits we raised; we ate fish if a friend had been lucky on the Danube River. So I understand the catchwords “locally grown” and the movement that is slowly gaining momentum in the United States. Nevertheless, I’ve been known to buy peppers flown in from Amsterdam in February and have kicked myself for my folly more than once after tasting them. But my, they looked good!
Why should a small hot dog stand have a future? Because it is simple. I know what the inventory is because I receive it, use it, and pay for it. I know the customer’s name because I hand her the soup and bread myself. I know the temperature of the dishwasher because I do the dishes. I don’t need a manager to tell me what labor problems are brewing. Le Dog is my baby, so it’s my responsibility to watch over everything. My wife, Ika, who operates a very similar Le Dog on Main Street in the middle of town, is the only other person who shares my particular passion. In fact, she does it better than I, because she can focus on keeping it simple (some days I still want to serve roast duck or pheasant under Styrofoam).
How do I picture Le Dog in a decade? I hope I can keep it on its present course. Recently, a dear friend prompted me to research the possibility of franchising, of cloning a successful concept to reap benefits of scale and gain new vigor. Yet, much as I would like to return with my current knowledge to 1979 and cover many college campuses with Le Dogs, that is only a pipe dream. What I have today is small and specialized. It works for me, and I don’t think I’ll stagnate if I limit myself to two locations. New customers discover us all the time. Most important, I can follow my passion every day. I can cook!