By the time he was halfway up U.S. 131 to Mackinaw City, Steven Brown knew he might have taken his crazy idea a little too far. There was no turning back at this point.
But after 13 hours, 492 miles and $2,500 later, he was the new CEO of his own business.
The hot dog cart sitting in the trailer riding behind him on the freeway marked the beginning of his career as an unconventional entrepreneur.
He was 30, putting life back together after 11 years overseas doing Army life. He was beginning a new stage: college freshman.
“Being a single dad, and being a veteran, it was hard finding a part-time job just for weekends,” Brown explained about the decision to get creative for employment, “So I went out and did it myself.”
In the fall of 2012, Brown officially launched the “Grand Rapids Hot Dog Company.”
The cart is decked out in Laker Pride. Under the blue-and-white large umbrella, Brown serves dogs and chips to the downtown community in a GVSU football T-shirt. Brown is a prideful man; Grand Valley has given him a new sense of fulfillment after returning from combat. His goal is not just make money for himself and his family, but also to serve the GVSU community.
Most students have seen Brown on their commute to classes. Hopping right off the Rapid bus 50, the smells of his special recipe pretzel-dogs carry them through class. The Grand Rapids Hot Dog Company cart is usually parked under the overpass by the bus stop near the downtown Pew campus.
“It’s really great he’s out here supporting Grand Valley,” said Audrey Slizewski, a GVSU student moments before taking a big bite of her loaded up hot dog, “I think it’s just for such a great cause.”
Brown knows a thing or two about giving back. During ArtPrize, his cart sits by the Courtyard Mariott to feed art watchers taking a break from the sights. However, he certainly has not left GVSU behind during these weeks. True to his past, he has vouched to donate 10 percent of his profit to the WGVU Student Veterans Scholarship Fund. At the end of a shift, he brings the leftover dogs to homeless shelters, or passes them out to the hungry around Rosa Parks Circle.
“I believe in work and doing good,” explains Brown, “So I’ll ask them to help me load up, and I’ll give them free hot dogs.”
Brown learned a business strategy early on: You have to set yourself apart. Questionable meat product and preservative infused buns are not found on The Grand Rapids Hot Dog Company cart. All of Brown’s products are Michigan based from dogs to toppings, chips to drinks. His unique pretzel bun style dog gets its bread from a bakery in Grandville, and the meat is from Flint.
Business has been booming for Brown, but that doesn’t mean life as a young, however unconventional, professional and college student has been easy.
“Basically, a lot of us [veterans] came back from a war zone,” Brown said of his transition experience from boots to books, “Trying to fit back in, to society itself, it’s different and really rough. There’s a lot of support, but it’s still tough sitting in class.”
The support he is talking about is the Student Veterans Organization. Brown adds to his roles as a single father to his 9-year-old daughter, entrepreneur, and student. He works with the Assistant Dean of Students to help other student veterans who may be experiencing some of the same things he does.
According to Brown, The Grand Rapids Hot Dog Company has even been named one of the best hot dog brands in Grand Rapids by WOOD TV 8. And those who experience one of Brown’s pretzel-dogs couldn’t agree more. Brown is also a talker. He’ll tell his story to any one of his customers, making them love the unique lunch just a little more.
Her friend takes a bite next to her. He seemed a little more skeptical, but his face lit up no less than hers after just one bite.
“I mean, we’re supporting a GVSU student, veterans, and even WGVU here with this,” Ron Grew said, “We think it’s just great.”
After influence by his 9-year-old daughter, Brown will even make a special meatless hot dog for the vegetarians upon request.
Brown hopes to grow his business to become the top hot dog company for Michigan. Making plans to bring carts to Detroit, Muskegon and Lansing.
“One time I did have one of my repeat customers look up my number on Facebook at 2 a.m. looking for a hot dog,” said Brown, reliving one his most entertaining moments in the business, “I just had to say, sorry, I’m just one guy. I’m going to bed. No brick-and-mortar business here. But I have some dedicated customers.”
After ArtPrize, Brown and the Grand Rapids Hot Dog Company cart will be back under the US 131 underpass serving up his fellow Lakers.
His out of the ordinary business venture and passion for food and community is treating Brown well. Though, he says he still laughs at the idea that he is a “CEO of an up-and-coming business.”