Thirty thousand people make a living selling hot dogs in New York City. The Bourne brothers, Todd and Tommy, decided to try and do the same in Memphis.
Todd Bourne started selling hot dogs two-and-a-half years ago. He said he woke up one day and told his wife that he wanted to buy a hot dog cart. "She's from Long Island and said it was okay, but that I couldn't put no red weenies on it."
Todd first set up his Memphis Dawgs cart on Union and Main downtown. He sampled many varieties, but says his customers chose the Big Nathan's, which are quarter-pound, all-beef hot dogs. "I haven't turned back," he said.
He eventually left downtown for more eastern pastures on Poplar at Amro Music and then later at Samuel's Furniture. Six weeks ago, folks from Wolfchase Galleria invited him to set up in the food court with a no-strings-attached deal. They wanted him to use a steam table. But he said he'd feel more comfortable with a cart. "I can sling a lot of weenies off of my cart," he says.
Todd has two carts in the mall and says he is bringing an outdoor feel inside. "Oh, boy, is it working. It's getting better and better. I'm going to be there awhile," says Todd, who admits that he wasn't sure he'd like it but has quickly grown to love the conditioned air in the mall. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are his big days: "The rest of the week, it's tumbleweeds, but they tell me the tide turns when the kids get out of school."
Selling 200 hot dogs is a good day for Todd. He credits Twitter for changing his business. "The folks who knew me from the street come in and support me," he says. (His Twitter handle is @memphisdawgs.)
He keeps his business simple: hot dogs, chips, drinks, and two kinds of cake. Hot dogs are $4 and chips and drinks are $1 each. He has a dozen toppings for the hot dogs, but the "Memphis Dawg" is his biggest seller, accounting for 80 percent of sales. It's topped with creamy cole slaw, a secret spicy barbecue sauce, and celery salt.
"You know, in Memphis you either gotta deep-fry or barbecue. The Memphis Dawg will make a rabbit slap a hound," he says.
Todd says even his little brother is "hot dogging" now. Thomas, or Tommy, who is two years younger than Todd, started selling hot dogs part-time in 2010 while continuing to work his regular full-time job servicing X-ray processors. "I started using my vacation days to sell hot dogs because I was having so much fun," Tommy says. "I love being behind the cart and putting smiles on people's faces."
He was inspired by the fact that Todd could work from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and then go fishing. Tommy set up a separate business, Southern Dawgs, and began selling full-time on April 20th. "I started with a regular ol' meat dog, but since my reputation was at stake, I decided to sell something worth buying and switched to the Nathan's dog." He, too, has a variety of condiments including Todd's secret barbecue sauce.
Tommy followed in his brother's footsteps by setting up in East Memphis. He's at Amro two or three times a week and can be found at the gas pumps at the Kirby Gate Kroger on Quince the rest of the week. He also does special events. "Out east, they want things of this nature. They've really embraced us," he says.
Right now, selling 30 hot dogs a day is a good day for Tommy. "I go out wanting to sell 60, but if I sell 15, I've made myself happier than if I went to work for eight hours." He also uses Twitter to generate customers under the name @dawgertom.
Todd's days of afternoon fishing have ended. He works 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday, when he works from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. "I try and take one day off a week, but it's hard to leave and not worry. It's like leaving my baby alone."
Tommy helps Todd out at the mall when it rains, and Todd's son, who is graduating from White Station High School this year, has also been a big help.
Although Todd and Tommy have both moved east, Todd says his buddy Steve, who sells hot dogs downtown from his Blues City cart, now carries the "Memphis Dawg." "He had lots of people asking him after I left," explains Todd, who doesn't view other carts as competition. "We're all in this together," he says.
Follow the Bourne brothers via Twitter:
@memphisdawgs and @dawgertom.