Michigan State University students Ben Pikus and Louis Azor, owner of More Than Vintage clothing store and café in East Lansing, were on a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, when a new business idea took shape.
“There are a lot of street vendors there with hot dog carts. We saw how excited people got about the simple wiener, nothing too crazy,” Pikus said. “Then the name University Weiner came up, and after that, it was like, ‘Alright, we have to do it.’”
The duo opened the hot dog shop at 551 E. Grand River Ave., near the Bailey Street intersection, in late August.
“We were thinking that this city really needed that late-night spot, and we wanted to bring that to the community,” Pikus said. “It was cool for us because we’re also students. We saw the potential for an affordable spot for students to eat at night. That’s really how it came to be, and we were really fortunate with the spot we ended up in.”
Pikus grew up in the north Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills, where the mustard runs like tap water and wieners are known to be a way of life.
“We definitely wanted to keep it super focused on wieners because it’s University Weiner, not ‘University Late Night Grub,’” he said.
The menu features eight signature dogs, plus the Weiner on a Stick. Those craving simplicity might opt for the Raw Dog (no toppings), while hardliners may choose the Detroit Dog (chili, mustard and onion) or the Windy City Weiner (mustard, onion, relish, pickle spear, tomato, sport peppers and celery salt, served on a steamed poppy seed bun).
More exotic options include the Spartan Sizzler, topped with bacon, cream cheese, hot sauce and sautéed peppers and onions, and the Slaw Dog, bolstered with pulled pork, slaw, shredded pickles and barbecue sauce drizzle. Vegetarians and vegans have the option to substitute meat for the Plant Weiner, and gluten-free buns are also available.
By far, though, the most popular entry has been the MAC Ave, with bacon, mac and cheese, crushed Barbecue-flavored Lays chips and barbecue sauce drizzle.
“That’s definitely kind of our staple at this point, without us really even realizing that would take place. The MAC Ave has taken that lead by a mile,” Pikus said.
University Weiner sources its Vienna-style and 100% beef hot dogs, as well as its chili, from Koegel Meats Inc. in Flint.
“They’re a well-known, dominant brand in Michigan. We’re proud to carry their wieners,” Pikus said.
Shortly after opening, Pikus and Azor had a run-in with Joey Chestnut, the 16-time Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest champion and one of the world’s leading authorities on wieners.
“That was probably one of the funniest, coolest things that could’ve happened. We had no plans to meet; we didn’t even know he was in town,” Pikus said. “We met him at a Lugnuts game and asked him, ‘Are you willing to just try one of our wieners?’ I think for him, it was cool to see two young adults with the kind of drive and ambition we have.”
Chestnut was impressed. “That’s a good hot dog. A damn good hot dog,” he said in a video posted on the University Weiner Facebook page.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say he brought in more business. I think it just kind of contributed to the brand we’re building,” Pikus said. “That’s something that we really pride ourselves on. Not just being a place that sells really good hot dogs but becoming a staple in the community. We want to do things with the school and the wider community. We want to give back.”
Early efforts toward this goal have yielded a partnership with the Mady Sissoko Foundation, the namesake charity organization of MSU senior basketball player Mady Sissoko. University Weiner donates a portion of its proceeds to help Sissoko’s organization build schools in his home country of Mali, a landlocked nation in western Africa.
“That’s super cool for us because it’s not like we’re giving to a charity that’s massive. With this, it’s super concentrated,” Pikus said.
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