Hot dog history

Mel’s Hot Dogs' owner switched from woodwinds to wieners nearly 40 years ago.

click to enlarge STILL HOT: Mel’s Hot Dogs have been serving real Chicago-style hot dogs since 1973. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
STILL HOT: Mel’s Hot Dogs have been serving real Chicago-style hot dogs since 1973.

Cars coming off the interstate at Busch Boulevard whiz past a giant red and white sign with an arrow pointing east toward Mel’s Hot Dogs. When Mel Lohn opened Mel’s Hot Dogs nearly 40 years ago, admission to Busch Gardens was $2 and the parking was free. Opening a hot dog stand was never the plan for Lohn while he was growing up in Chicago. Instead, he was a classically trained musician who dreamt of one day becoming first chair clarinet in the Chicago Symphony.

His mentor, Joe Daley, encouraged him to get out of the classroom and start playing publicly. Lohn came to Florida with the band Creative American Rock Ensemble or C.A.R.E.

“I ended up in Sarasota in December 1968 and I was playing at this dive called Club Mary,” Lohn said. “We found ourselves as the house band behind a quartet of very attractive and scantily clad women.”

Those scantily clad women were bringing in double the money Lohn and his band were making.

“I knew I needed to grow some bosoms or find a new career,” Lohn said.

Lohn quit the band and drove to Tampa. When he got here, the hot dog scene wasn’t like the one in Chicago.

“Where I grew up there were a couple of thousand of hot dog stands,” Lohn said. “There wasn’t a hot dog place in this entire town and it didn’t make sense in my little mind.”

A friend’s father back home, who invested in starting restaurants, loaned him the $7,000 needed to start the business.

“I thought that this was just something I would do between bands,” Lohn said.

Mel’s Hot Dogs opened in 1973 at 4126 E. Busch Blvd., the same piece of property it sits on today.

“I sold $99 my first day,” Lohn said. “I was selling a hot dog with fries for 79 cents and a Coke for 29 cents.”

Vienna beef hot dogs with natural casing are the only hot dogs Lohn trusts.

Natural casing means some kind of animal product, usually intestine, is used. This hot dog is arguably better than some synthetic casing that came about in an ungodly fashion. And just as the menu states, the hot dog really does pop when you bite into it. Chances are it is the best hot dog you’ve ever tried.

“It's the best hot dog you’ve ever tried,” Lohn asserts. “The hot dog is the highest quality.”

The hot dog menu has expanded over the years and now includes 17 different kinds of dogs, including an authentic Chicago dog. The slaw dog is smothered in fresh house made slaw. The corndog is dipped in whole grain stone-ground meal batter and fried to perfection. The Fire Dog is a toasty hoagie roll filled with a quarter-pound hand stuffed beef sausage, topped with grilled peppers, onions, sport peppers, and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.

“Hot dogs have been good to me,” Lohn said. “Music was and still is such a fickle beast.”

Mel and his wife Virginia own and operate Mel’s, though he admits she does most of the work these days.

“Miss Virginia is the boss and I’m just the pretty face,” Lohn said. “Mel just hangs around and jokes.”

Inside Mel’s, the walls are covered with photos of patrons sporting Mel’s gear around the world. One photo has a Mel’s bumper sticker on the rear of a camel in Saudi Arabia.

“Hot dogs have allowed me to be a participant in meeting and helping other people,” Lohn said. “The restaurant business is awesome because everyone eats.”

That includes celebrities, several city mayors, judges, and even a governor.

“It’s been 39 years and 13 days and I’m still between bands,” Lohn says with a laugh. “I still have all my horns though, just in case I go broke.”