A Hot Dog Restaurant That Brings a Town Together - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Hot Dog Restaurant That Brings a Town Together

A Hot Dog Restaurant That Brings a Town Together

By Steve Ewing

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because it’s never just about the hot dog.

By Steve Ewing

Today on The Carlos Watson Show, we’re celebrating a Brighter Financial Friday sponsored by Discover. Discover created the Eat It Forward Program to give local Black-owned restaurants chances to win $25,000, and the program has given out $5 million in all. Recent recipient Steve Ewing, owner of Steve’s Hot Dogs in St. Louis, shares his story.

So there I was at the shop, on the register, and my partners, who had already gotten the email, came in to let me know in person. It had been a rough year, so I think they were trying to elicit an emotional response, which they got, because when they showed the email to me, I almost broke down.

When the community came together and nominated us for the Eat It Forward award, it was a really good feeling, because we’d been hammering and pushing, and pushing and hammering. My partners signed us up and we told all of our people on social media to let Discover know what we do. The response was overwhelming. It was an amazing feeling, and it gave us more confidence to keep pushing.

We started Steve’s Hot Dogs as a side business. On tour with my band, the Urge, we would always try to find the street guy at the end of the night. So when I decided I wanted to do food, I felt like I could get in the game without really knowing hot dogs. I had been playing music professionally for 30 years and got to a point where I wanted to do something different and have another thing to do during the day. So I decided to get my feet wet in food with a hot dog stand.

Then we decided we wanted to expand and do some more things with the menu. We needed a brick-and-mortar, so I searched around until I found this cute little place in a neighborhood called the Hill. That was 11 years ago.

What I learned is, I didn’t really want to do anything else with food. I wanted to stick with hot dogs. But we felt like we needed to set ourselves apart by presenting the hot dog as more like a gourmet meal. That’s why ours come with all the toppings, the fresh-baked bread from the local bakery, and locally sourced meats and cheeses. We wanted to elevate it — bring it to that next level. For example, we have a hot dog called the Bacon Bacon Jamaican, which is two slices of bacon, chopped bacon, grilled bell peppers, honey chipotle sauce and pepper Jack cheese.

Here in Tower Grove East, St. Louis, it’s not a huge operation — it runs like a large sandwich shop. We currently have nine employees, and it requires quite a bit of effort. Community-wise, we’re right in a neighborhood in the middle of the south side of St. Louis, with schools and other small businesses around us. It’s incredibly important for us to be involved with everything that’s happening in the community. We’re involved with fundraising for the public schools in the area, the food pantries and feeding kids, especially in the summer when they’re out of school and during COVID when schools were shut down. 

COVID was pretty hard for us at the beginning because we were so used to this model of people coming into the dining room and eating the food or taking out. When they shut everybody down, we had to shift gears really fast, do things we weren’t really prepared to do. So we redid all the websites and made the food easier to order from phones and laptops. We had to go back through Grubhub and Postmates and all the delivery services and tie all that in together.

That’s where my partners come in. They’re really good on the back end. But things dipped a little bit because people got scared. There’s a magazine here called Sauce Magazine that really did a great job of getting the city fired up about helping the restaurants, and once they did that, people came out. I mean, they went everywhere they could and started buying food just to keep the restaurants going in St. Louis. It was amazing.

Food is a really big thing here. All the small neighborhoods have tons of little shops and restaurants. Everybody realized the need to step up and support their favorite neighborhood joints. They also tipped like crazy because the employees were having problems. It was really cool to see.

We were also still making sure kids had meals, and businesses were approaching us about raising money for schools, for books, pencils and pens — a lot of kids don’t have those things. Also, some local chefs have come to us for food for the pantries: There are a lot of little sandwich shops and little places that opened their doors so kids could come in to get things during the day. So we formed a coalition called Feed the People, and volunteers come in and help with donations, meal making and delivery. It wasn’t just us; there are quite a few other small businesses in the area that stuck together, so it’s all about us taking care of the community.

With the $25,000 we won from Discover, we’ve started to pay off some of our past debts and invest in ways to help employees through slow times in the future. We have a little extra pad in the back of our accounts so we can make more food, hire more people to go out and bring in more folks to help.

Eventually, I’d love to expand again. I’d love to go into St. Louis County and eventually franchise. We’ve seen a lot of interest in that over the years, and while it’s something I can’t pull the trigger on now, I have new confidence that we will in the future.

So, a huge thanks to Discover, big-time. It’s money but it’s also an affirmation. It feels good. It takes a lot of weight off, emotionally, coming into this new year.

— as told to Joshua Eferighe

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