WESLEY CHAPEL A child of Akron, Ohio, once the hardworking hub of the tire universe, Gerald Rubino surprised no one when he grew up to take a job at the hometown B.F. Goodrich plant. Except, maybe, Gerald Rubino, who had other ideas.Tom
There was this guy, see, who ran a hot dog stand just outside the factory gate, and several days each week, Rubino bought lunch from him. Two foot-longs with yellow mustard and relish. And every day as he trudged back to his company job in the company town, Rubino thought, “What if I
was the hot dog guy?”
He put a lid on the idea, allowing it to simmer for most of the next three decades and a couple of career tweaks until, in the winter of 2009 after 13 years selling new cars, Rubino found himself rocking on his heels, surrounded by a million dollars worth of gleaming German automotive genius … and dreading the moment the next prospective customer pushed through the door to the BMW of Sarasota showroom.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “It used to be, selling a car, it was great; there was no higher high. And suddenly, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t even want to go over and meet the people, shake their hands, none of it.”
Three months later,
Executive Hotdog debuted, briefly working out the kinks in downtown Zephyrhills before moving to its familiar home beneath an oak flanking the entrance to Dick’s Sporting Goods at The Grove at Wesley Chapel. So, the answer to your question — “What’s up with the guy in the starched white shirt and dark dress slacks peddling hot dogs on the curb?” — is not what you suspect.
Neither a middle manager laid off in the Great Recession nor yet another baby boomer gone middle-age crazy, Gerald Rubino is, at 55, doing what he believes in his marrow he was set upon Earth to do.
Not that co-workers universally cheered. “Some of them gave me ‘the look,’
” — head cocked, eyebrow arched, smirk on the lips: the gaze of mockery — “like, ‘Really? OK, whatever.’ But, c’mon, I was a car salesman. We’re not the most stable group anyway.”
And now? “Man,” says a regular patron who sounds like he wishes he’d thought of it first, “he’s killin’ it.”
Rubino shrugs at that, “killin’ it” being a relative term. His one-man, one-cart operation, sort of a food truck without the truck, won’t make him the Bill Gates of takeaway dining, but it does a good bit more than simply pay its bills. How much more? Let’s just say Rubino isn’t encouraging his wife, Renee Rubino, who does corporate sales for a long-haul trucking company, to join him over the steamer.
Monday through Saturday, Rubino hitches his custom-made (in St. Petersburg) cart to a 30-year-old red Toyota Tercel all-wheel-drive station wagon for the drive up from Grand Hampton just across the county line in New Tampa.
Executive Hotdog (“Who puts executives and hotdogs together?” he says. “It’s a — what’s that word? — oxymoron.”) opens by noon and serves until 6 p.m., or until the dinner rush subsides.
Everything is that-day fresh.
Hot dogs, condiments, the works. “I don’t take chances with anything that could spoil,” he says. Which is why you can top a dog with chili, sauerkraut, relish or New York-style onions in sauce, but not coleslaw, which suffers in the heat.
From the preparation of his wares to the maintenance of his cart, Rubino is preternaturally fastidious, spreading condiments with surgical precision and keeping fresh-buffed surfaces, all the while making it home most nights without a blemish on his (remember: starched white) shirt.
The details are revealing; don’t think his regulars don’t notice. Dick Regintin, 72, a retired IBM consultant from, coincidentally, Akron, has been swinging by several times each month for a couple of years. He takes his with onions only; his wife likes mustard, ketchup and relish. Says Regintin, “We get real upset whenever he takes a day off.”
The hot dog stand is a guilty pleasure for the figures-watching sales force at the nearby Ulta beauty supply superstore, says assistant manager Lyn Wright. “Best hot dog guy around,” says Wright, who succumbs to temptation about once a week.
“I never thought of it as a gutsy move,” Rubino says. “Maybe ignorance is bliss, but, really, I am not a chance-taker.” Instead, Rubino is a dream-follower. A belated one — “I should have done this years ago; I’m the best boss I ever had” — but nevermind.
Once upon a time, Gerald Rubino wondered what it would be like to be the hot dog guy. Years later, he’s found out. It’s a story with a happy ending.