The subject line of the email read “Bruce had three loves.”
Inside: “1) Chicago 2) Chicago Hot dogs 3) People.”
Barry Alpert was one of more than 50 people who reached out to share stories about Bruce Karlin, who ran Bruce’s Chicago Grill & Dog House for decades in Largo until it closed last year. He died Aug. 3, and last week, the Times went in search of people who could help us remember him.
The memories they shared fit right into Alpert’s list.
“I remember my first time ever eating there,” wrote Shaun Smith, who paid attention that day to how other customers ordered. They used the numbers for the hot dogs, and Karlin laughed and requested the names, saying he couldn’t remember them all.
Smith was prepared with his dog name for Karlin, and “he was like ‘whoa, I don’t know them by name, only by number.’ So I then panicked and spit out which number it was. … Bruce turned around to yell the order to the back and called it by name. I just laughed as he smiled when he turned around. He had that gotcha look on his face. I was hooked after that.”
A lot of people were hooked, and not just on the Chicago-style hot dogs. Here’s what we learned about the man who brought a bit of the Windy City to Tampa Bay.
He relished his customers
Before there was Bruce’s, there was Bill’s Dog House, wrote Jeff Etter, an early customer who stuck around when Karlin moved in.
“Over the ensuing years, I took my kids, my father and step-father, wife, grandkids all to experience the joy of a ‘Chicago Dog,’” he wrote. “One time I even got Bruce to put a tablecloth and plates on a table with a candle, and I took a date there for lunch.”
Over the years, Etter learned about Karlin’s life in Chicago. He’d been a clinical psychotherapist, according to a 1996 Tampa Tribune story, and had operated several restaurants in the Chicago area before moving to Tampa Bay in the early 1990s.
During the next three decades, Etter figures he ate at Bruce’s more than 2,000 times, including with his granddaughter for lunch on Saturdays.
“She loved Bruce’s corndogs and his incredible chocolate brownies with chocolate chips,” Etter said.
A lot of people wrote to us about the food, and even more about how Karlin made them feel.
“What I remember about Bruce was he always seemed in good spirits, and what particularly stood out about him was that, no matter how busy he was, he always took the time to go around the restaurant and ask each customer if they were satisfied with their meal,” wrote Dan Tabbert.
Sean Krummerich agreed.
“It was a rare visit when Bruce did not come out at least once to chat with us and see how we were doing.”
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Ronn Lozner liked to go in after the lunch crowd so Karlin would have time to sit and visit and “solve all the world’s problems.”
“I can still hear him shout ‘drop a big one,’ which was the command to the cooks that someone just ordered a jumbo dog,” he wrote. “… He was so kind, so in tune with his business.”
Karlin was also willing to help other business owners. Melinda London wrote about starting her family’s own hot dog place in Clearwater.
“My daughter and I were there and she asked for ketchup,” she wrote. “He scared her with his reply of ‘what do you want that for?’ I replied ‘just for her fries.’ Because everyone knows ketchup does not go on a hot dog.”
That 1996 Tribune story wasn’t just about Karlin’s Chicago dogs. It was about his service. Janet from Tarpon Springs was dissatisfied with her lunch order, and after telling Karlin, he sent her two more dogs and, a week later, an apology letter and a refund. The woman was so moved by the experience that she wrote advice columnist Ann Landers.
“Let’s hear it for the owner of that hot dog place in Largo,” Landers responded. “He knows how to keep his customers happy.”
He offered a piece of home
The Chicago hot dog shop in the strip mall in Largo was, for a lot of people, a portal back home. And it was one that Karlin’s customers helped build.
“We added to the display of Chicago memorabilia decor by bringing him our Illinois license plate that says CLOAD1,” wrote Gerry Cload.
Tony Leisner grew up in the same neighborhood and attended the same high school as Karlin. He traded a 70-plus-year-old coffee cup from the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad for lunch.
Peter Paul Kohut, a native Chicagoan and retired Cubs season ticket holder, got a free chocolate cookie from Karlin every time Kohut visited wearing his Cubs hat.
And Jamie Bierchen contributed several things, including pennants and a framed picture of former Chicago Bears player Walter Payton. For every memory she gave Karlin, he gave her a brownie.
“Not only were his hot dogs exactly like those from my childhood in Chicago, he was an extremely friendly person,” Bierchen wrote. “I went to his place to see him just as much as I went there for the hot dogs.”
He built an institution
In 2020, Karlin closed his hot dog shop due to multiple illnesses. When he recovered, he reopened. The Times wrote about him in March 2022. By the end of that year, he closed again.
By the spring of this year, hot dogs were back in the same spot, but Karlin was not.
Coney Island Hot Dogs, which first opened in Brooksville in 1960, moved in. And as they have with other spots they’ve expanded to, they tried to respect the history they inherited. The marquee sign for Bruce’s Chicago Grill & Dog House now hangs in the hallway. There’s some of the Chicago memorabilia left, too.
“It’s a lot of memories for people,” said owner Carter Lee.
They’re memories that Karlin’s customers and friends still savor.
“Bruce was the ultimate entrepreneur,” wrote Fred Gurtman, another customer since the beginning. “He built a small restaurant into an institution.”
His restaurant was “the little piece of home that kept you from getting home sick,” wrote Ellie Johnson.
He was just a small-business guy, Etter wrote, “but he was a giant when it came to making people feel like they were at home among friends.”
Unlike any of their other locations, Coney Island’s Largo shop serves Vienna dogs, just like Karlin did. You can still get a Chicago dog there, too.
Whatever you do, make Karlin proud and don’t order it with ketchup.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.