Sunlight and slush, puddles and potholes — the signs of Anchorage spring have returned. For food fans, the tastes and smells of spring have returned too, and perhaps no one is better known for selling sausages and hot dogs locally than Michael Anderson of M.A.’s Gourmet Dogs.
When Anderson reopened his cart in March, he embarked on his 20th season of serving hot dogs and attitude at the steps of the Federal Building on Fourth Avenue.
Whether you know him as “the hot dog guy,” “the hot dog Nazi” or simply
M.A., he’s been grilling and chilling so long that Alaska Sausage and Seafood named an Italian sausage after him, he’s been featured in national media and he’s made thousands of loyal customers and hundreds of friends despite his strict rules for ordering.
Every spring they return to the welcome mat in front of his cart for a hot dog and his signature M.F.G. mustard, an occasional hug and a (usually) good-natured hard time.
M.A. put down his tongs long enough to tell Play his hot dog history, why he usually wears sunglasses and if his banter has ever had too much mustard on it for a customer.
Play: Twenty is a big number. How have your regulars responded to the anniversary, and how do you feel about it?
M.A.: People have been talking about 19 and 20 for a few years, but it didn’t really hit me until a week ago. Twenty? Seriously? Wow. I have a sign posted about it now, and people look at me in disbelief. I look right back and say, yeah, unbelievable!
Play: When you opened the stand, did you envision the success or longevity?
M.A.: My first year on the street I thought I’d have to dress up in a costume, do a dance and entertain people to draw them in. But it was so busy. I ran out of hot dogs the first day — I’ve never done that again. … A friend asked me, how is it possible that you get busier every year? I said, there’s 250,000 people in Anchorage and I haven’t served them all yet. People are so passionate about the dogs, and they’re still telling their friends and family.
Play: What are the keys to your success?
M.A.: It isn’t accidental. I am so anal about the consistency of the dogs, the buns, the way I fold the foil. I never skimp — I buy the high-end stuff. When it became successful, I swore I would never alter it. … Each year, I still learn a half-dozen new things. I’m always trying to improve. Not change, but improve.
Play: Your interaction with the customers is a big draw too.
M.A.: I give the food and atmosphere and music and (my dog) Paisan most of the credit, but yeah, the banter is why some people come. … It’s almost as if this business was created for my personality. I am a people person. I enjoy the interaction, but I don’t enjoy blather. I can talk to the homeless guy and the federal judge and treat them all the same. I watch the street. That’s my neighborhood; that’s my block.
Play: Has your attitude ever been too much for a customer?
M.A.: That’s an excellent question. I am abrasive at times to some, but I’ve learned to hone it. I’m not as aggressive as I used to be. I don’t intend to offend people, but there are times I do. … But I don’t care if people think I’m a hard-a--. I’m trying to get people through the line quicker.… I’ve upset some people from time to time, but I’ve never had someone give me a dog back.
About seven or eight years ago, I was done with the whole cell phone thing (people using their phones while ordering). It’s the No. 1 rule I enforce. I just won’t serve them if they don’t get off the damn phone. Some people get really offended or don’t get it and leave, but that’s the chance I’m willing to take for common courtesy.
Play: People have very particular tastes, but you practically insist that everyone has sautéed onions with their dogs. Does that ever upset anyone?
M.A.: It does, but it’s another one of those things where I’ve gotten softer. Now I won’t even say anything when they say they don’t want onions, but I will look at them funny, like “Are you out of your (expletive) mind?” It must be a convincing look — at least 80 percent of them change their mind. The less I say the better, I guess.
Play: You might not want people to know this, but you have a soft spot, don’t you?
M.A.: I genuinely appreciate the people. People think I’m such a hard-a--, but one of the reasons I wear sunglasses is because I love it when kids come down and some of the events and situations that happen. Those emotions affect me. I feel what they’re feeling – I get teary-eyed. And I hug the heck out of people. It is shocking to me what one little hot dog stand can do and has done for me.
M.A.'s Gourmet Dogs marks 20 years of selling sausages with a side of friendly sass