As I was walking down 6th St. towards Dave’s Tater Grill to get some photos for this article, I could see Dave and his son laughing and making small talk with a Texan-transplant that was fairly new to our beloved little town. As I approached the hot dog cart, Dave waves to me and I’m suddenly sucked into their current conversation. “There’s not enough donut places here!” She says while playfully throwing her hands up into the air, a smile now plastered across all of our faces. Dave recommends checking out DK Donuts over on State St. I back him up on it.
“Okay, fine. But don’t even get me started on the lack of good barbeque!” She quipped. I recommend checking out Mr. BBQ out on Chinden. Dave backs me up on it.
As I get my camera out of the bag and prepare to finally snap some shots, another hungry customer approaches, thinking he’s going to get his weekly dose of friendly banter with his favorite hot dog cart owner. Dave tells him to hold off for a second as he has to take photos for an article. “Whoa, big shot over here!” The man yells and makes us all laugh.
Afterwards, Dave quickly whipped up one of his Seattle-style dogs for me. A ¼ lb all-beef dog with a solid base-layer of cream cheese and topped with fresh grilled onions. I told him to make it exactly the same way that he’d make it for himself. He adds a stream of sweet, tangy BBQ sauce and just a hint of mustard - which he says is crucial to bringing out the perfect balance of flavor. And, just as I expected it would be, it was delicious. A perfect late night snack.
I feel like this little anecdote of mine is crucial to envisioning Dave and his hot dog cart, which pops up on the weekends around 9 o’clock directly in front of Tom Grainey’s and the Leku Ono Hotel. Because of his cheery demeanor, his knowledge of the town (and it’s swift changes over the last few decades), and especially because of his delicious hot dog creations, his customers can’t wait to be next in line and chat with the Boise-native while he prepares their food for the evening, throwing water onto his grill as the steam erupts and drifts up towards the neon lights of the nearby bars - The entire block seems to have a good buzz.
We were lucky enough to get Dave into our office for this exclusive interview.
(PS - Did you see that FoodNetwork recently voted Dave's Tater Grill as one of the best hot dog carts in the country?)
Hey Dave! Wanna tell us a little about yourself to start things off?
A background on me? Well I was born in Seattle, and then raised in Idaho Falls. I joined the military way back when Reagan was president and got out of little ol’ Idaho Falls and realized there is a much a bigger world out there. Afterwards I did a lot of traveling for a few franchise companies and I eventually ended up in Boise to go to school. I moved away for a bit, but I hated it, and I knew that I had to come back. I’ve been back since 1997.
So you’ve been operating your hot dog cart for over 12 years, since 2006, and over the course of the last 12 years how has the late night food vendor scene shifted? How has it stayed the same?
The shift is that people are selling more than just hot dogs now. It used to be that you’d go down to TJ Yankee’s Dog and that’s it. Now we have philly cheesesteaks, chicken this, shwarma that! Now there’s three different places to get late night pizza!
The way that it’s stayed the same is that you see people who actually carry their friends in-hand to their favorite place. And it literally is their favorite place. To them, it’s the best food out there. There’s a strong sense of loyalty. That’s what is neat about it. There’s seven or nine vendors at any one time on the weekends and they all have their loyal customers. There’s also a strong sense of community between all of our food carts. Sure, we talk smack back and forth, but we all get along and rarely have anything genuinely bad to say to each other. I think that good food is good for all of us and I’ll always recommend them.
You're most famous for your Tater Dog (which for people who aren't aware; it's a hot dog that is covered in shredded hash browns with cheddar and jack cheeses on a toasted bun), has this been something that's been on your menu since the day you opened?
Not the very day I opened... It kind of evolved over time from potato wedges, to thick potato slices, to the hash browns that I have now. I actually took some advice from a customer when they told me that the freshness in hash browns will last a lot longer. They are as fresh at 10 o’clock at night as they are at 3AM. The freshness is equally the same. That very next weekend I tried it, and it was very successful, so I’ve never taken it off the menu.
What food do you like to cook for yourself at home for comfort?
(Immediately): Pasta. *laughs*
*Laughs* Oh, you’re a pasta guy?
Oh, yes! I’m a pasta guy. I think every country in the world has their perfect pasta and I would visit the whole world if I could and eat every bit of pasta! My heart and my stomach won’t like it, though! *laughs*
But your soul will!
Oh, yeah. There we go, that’s right.
So, what’s your favorite pasta?
The next one!
What is it that made you decide one day, "Hey, you know what? I'm going to open a food cart and I'm going to stick with it for a long, long time."
I had always been in the food service, since even before the military. I always enjoyed being around food. You know, since food is really good? What I ended up doing was meeting up with Renee from Gator Grill, and his wife, both of whom were old friends. She said “We’re getting a second cart, do you wanna do this?” - And that was way back in August of 2006, I believe.
What were some of the challenges that you faced when deciding to open Dave's Tater Grill? How did you keep yourself motivated?
The challenges when I started would be having to cook alongside people who had been doing it for years. I had always been a good host and a good cook, I had managed restaurants before… But the hardest part was watching people pass you by with nobody in line, only to stand in line at somebody else’s cart for sometimes up to half of an hour, and then they walk right past my cart again with their food. I make the joke that it makes you feel like the ugly kid at the family reunion, where even the dog won’t eat the food!
Again, it comes down to the customer’s favorite choices. I wasn’t “their guy” yet. They didn’t know who I was yet, they didn’t even know I was there. I startled people saying hi!
How did you learn to gain that loyalty?
I talked with people. I had a few customers who were friends from college and I remember one evening they came out and ordered a chicken-bacon-cheddar wrap from me, and I found out later that they had spent the money they were going to spend to see a movie on that food. It was an event for them! And that’s an incredible feeling. When somebody stops and looks and says, “What do ya’ have here?” The spotlight comes on. It’s the best.
What do you spend most of your time doing? Do you have any exciting projects coming up that Boise's late night scene should be aware of?
I have a 6 year old granddaughter, an 8 year old son, a 9 year old step-daughter… I love jumpin’ on the trampoline with them. There’s few things better than that.
My house was built in 1944, so I also love spending time upgrading the things that need to be fixed. Sometimes I like to buy old cars that were totalled and fix them up. I try to be a handyman.
What would you say to other young entrepreneurs who want to start their own business but might be a little scared to take the plunge?
I’d say do it and don’t expect to make money. Don’t ever lower your standards, either. Never drop your standards. And it’s never too late. I started when I was 40, and this is the happiest job I’ve ever had… I’ve had plenty of fun jobs, too.
And finally, if you could have one dream celebrity be the face of Dave's Tater Grill - Who would it be?
(Immediately) Guy Fieri. I actually played him in foosball at Tom Grainey’s when he was in town one time. He’s so unpretentious, he’s not arrogant, he’s as charming in real life as he is on TV, too. He’s just such a cool, fun guy. He bought me a drink, too!
Well, hey! Hopefully he’ll read this article and stop on by Dave’s Tater Grill next time he’s in town!
And play foosball with me again! *Laughs*
*Laughs* Yeah! By the way, who won?
*Pauses* ….. I shouldn’t say.
We loved having the opportunity to interview Dave and hear his amazing stories from the late-night downtown scene. Be sure to stop by Dave’s Tater Grill next time you’re downtown, and tell him that Totally Boise sent you!
If you know of any other interesting business owners, artists, musicians, or anyone else who has a fun history with Boise: Be sure to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org for the chance at a fun interview like this one!