Hot Dog Man keeps it simple; Feeds loyal patrons at low prices
Published 1:37 am Sunday, December 28, 2014
It’s a simple enough concept for Carl Baker — serve what the public wants at an affordable price.
After nearly 15 years as the Hot Dog Man, Baker plans to stick to the same formula and still add to his menu of perhaps the best cheap eats in Vicksburg.
“I’m retired, so it’s not the money that keeps me here,” Baker said. “And I only do real select catering for children’s events. I don’t raise my prices because I’m against all that. I might have raised my prices maybe a quarter since I’ve been here and by maybe 50 cents on the drinks.”
A favorite for legions of people on the go — most often manual laborers who must squeeze a lunch break into the blink of an eye — the Hot Dog Man has expanded the menu at its cinder-block building at 1710 Monroe St. as specialty flavors in everything from sausages to snack food have multiplied. A traditional frank, a beverage and a bag of chips still goes for under $5, but the sides of the bun are stretched out farther these days by a garlic or Cajun sausage link.
“When I first came on board and bought this place, there was red beans and rice, hot dogs, nachos and Frito pies,” Baker said. “So, I’ve added jumbo hot dogs, three different sausages, cookies, pickles, fresh chili, brisket, hamburgers and boudin.”
It fits the bill perfectly and often for Bubba Lawrence’s crew of laborers.
“We come over on lunch break,” Lawrence said. “We like it and come here all the time. I’ve tried everything here and it’s all good.”
Baker, a retired Army MP and commander of the neighboring American Legion Post 3, has even added brisket when prices allow. Even if market forces keep Baker out of stock of his newer offerings from time to time, locals and others who adore fast food heavier on taste than price needn’t fret about the Hot Dog Man rolling his cart to another corner, so to speak.
“Brisket’s gotten to be about $100 for a 12 or 14-pounder,” Baker said. “But, I don’t charge sales tax because I don’t like it,” he said, adding he simply pays the state amounts for what he could be charging customers. “I spent 12 years in Europe with the military. And what you see there is what you get. I think it should be the same way here.”
Baker said the eatery began around 1995 with a traditional street cart by Mark Jones, no relation to the V105.5 radio station owner. Three years previous, Baker, then living in Alabama, had retired from the Army and tried volunteering and worked as a mail carrier to stay busy.
“My wife’s job moved to Vicksburg, so I didn’t have anything to do here, so I went to the post office,” Baker said. “I was offered a permanent position there because this place was available.”
In 2000, Baker bought the building, built the cart itself into the front counter, and a transformation of what was once photo and print shops and a dance studio into a monument for picnic food began.
“My wife, Julia, did the handmade curtains in here,” Baker said, pointing out the yellowy curtains depicting the business’ staple food and bottles of ketchup associated with them. Two medieval armor suits — one more than 6 feet tall and another the size of a small child — stand guard, sans knight, as customers come through the door.
“I was working with auctioneer Floyd Kelly at an event there, saw it offered, and said, ‘That would be cute inside my business’,” Baker said. “I threw my bid in there and wound up taking it. The smaller one came from an estate sale. It’s a conversation piece and it brings people in. The kids go crazy over it. Some of them are scared of them. They compare themselves to it and say, ‘This one’s me! This one’s me!’”
A friendly atmosphere at the counter is a given. Employees Paula Buck and Nikita McGruder know regulars’ favorites in an instant, spooning out chili and slapping burgers together with ease.
“You’re getting your red beans and rice, right, ma’am?” Buck said, giving a “same to you” to each Merry Christmas wish in the lunchtime rush line.
Casual sums up the array of customers who consume the 40 or so cases of franks and three cases of chili Baker goes through each month. It’s a labor of love that he sees staying in business as long as hungry workers need a tasty treat for lunch.
“It’s the work crews that come in a lot,” Baker said. “I’ve had people walk in here with their pajamas on, their hair in curlers. They all come in for hot dogs and everything.”
“I own the building and I own the parking lot,” Baker said. “As long as I can pay the girls and put the hot dogs back on the shelf, I’m good.”