Mel Lohn, Chicago native, hot dog connoisseur and showman, came to Florida with a rock band in the late 1960s while traveling the country in an old school bus, red-and-white striped with a field of white stars set in a blue hood. He stayed, and after a few years struggling to find enough work as a musician, he partnered with an entrepreneur friend and opened Mel’s Red Hot Ranch, eventually Mel’s Hot Dogs, on Busch Boulevard in Tampa. He bought his friend’s share two years later, he said.
During the shutdown due to the pandemic, so many loyal customers bought take-out and tailgated in his parking lots, he said, that he didn’t have to lay off any of his staff.
Lohn, 74, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about running a business, now nearly a half-century old, that he thought would be a temporary break from rock 'n' roll.
What instrument did you play?
Saxophone and percussion and clarinet, flute and alto flute. I sang and did backups… It was a five-piece band – whatever needed to be done.
Why did you decide to settle in Florida?
December of 1968, we never had been to Florida. We found ourselves in a dive, and that’s with a capital D-I-V-E … outside of Sarasota on 301 called The Club Mary.... It was a rough, semi, right on the border of sleazy joint, but we loved it...
It was, like, 78 degrees and balmy, and we’re going to the beach, and it’s Christmas. We thought, wow, man, this place is magical. This is Florida. And myself and the guy that owned the bus … we said we’re not leaving.
Why did you open a hot dog restaurant?
You just assumed every city had a bunch of hot dog joints. I couldn’t find a single hot dog joint in this entire city. So I contacted a friend of mine in Chicago … “Let’s open a hot dog joint.” And he said, “Yeah, that’d be cool.”…
Did $99 worth of business my first day. And I said, "Holy ----,
I’m going to be rich!" Ninety-nine dollars worth of business the first day! That was 47 years ago, and I’m still technically between bands. I’ve still got all my horns.
How did you first attract customers?
I put up a sign, “Chicago-style Hot Dogs”... Big Vienna Beef signs. And I had a core of regular customers that were thrilled that I was selling Vienna Beef hot dogs. There was a company called Tampa Wholesale Plumbing, two brothers that had moved down here from Chicago. And they wanted me to succeed because they loved my hot dogs. They came in a couple of times a week. So they said, “Can we open up an account with you? We’ll send you all kinds of business.” And I didn’t have any open accounts, but I wasn’t going to say no to anybody about anything. And they said, "Anybody comes in and says, ‘We’re from Tampa Wholesale Plumbing,’ just put it on our account.'' And in the very beginning they were doing $600, $700 dollars worth of business a month with me. I mean, that was huge.
How long was it before you felt the business was stable?
I was living off the business from the very beginning, but the key word was just living. I was getting by.... I would pay my bills every Tuesday night. And I would have three piles: gotta pay, wanna pay and pay if there’s anything left. And they would shift from pay if there’s anything left to wanna pay to gotta pay as it got closer and closer to deadline. I was 10 years – almost to the day – down the road, when I paid down all three piles. I had no bills left, and I went, ‘Holy… I’m going to make it!’
You are known for your animation behind the counter. What’s your routine?
I’m obnoxious and rude.…People love it. We had John Germany, the (John F. Germany Public Library) John Germany – that Germany. Became a dear friend. He was a silk-stocking, big-time, super-connected Tampa person… and the first time he came in, I said, "Who are you, dude?''… I totally disrespected him and he loved it.…
But that’s what I would do, I would just pick on people and make up names. I’ve got a customer (who) comes into my store, and he comes in three or four times a week for the last 25 years. Rodney Dann. Owns an ocean tugboat company. I said, “What’s your name?” “Rodney.” “Eh, I don’t like Rodney,” so I started calling him Hot Rod. And the name has stuck. Even in his business they call him Hot Rod.
You’ve had a couple of vehicles crash into your restaurant, one last year and another 20 years before. How did that happen?
It’s because people are crazy. The speed limit on Busch Boulevard is 45. When I contacted (the Florida Department of Transportation) about it, they did a study, and the average speed on Busch Boulevard is almost 55 miles an hour. Now, if that’s the average speed, how fast are the crazies going?...
Here’s the nuts thing. We were going to put those big pipes in … they’re called bollards. My daughter’s an attorney, and she said, “Don’t do it, Dad… If somebody hits that bollard and dies, you’re liable, because you put it in.”
How do you like your hot dogs?
If I’m in the traditional mood, I’ll have Chicago-style. That’s mustard, onions, relish, pickles, tomatoes, celery salt and hot peppers.… Probably my second favorite is just a thin line of mustard, because there’s so much flavor in it, you don’t want to mask the taste of the hot dog....
There’re two things I’ll never put on a hot dog: mayonnaise and ketchup.… In Chicago, that’s against the law, to put ketchup on a hot dog.… And mayonnaise? They’d just as soon shoot you.