By Bill Husted, Special to the Denver Business Journal His real name is Jim Pittenger — but everyone from Anchorage to Denver calls him Biker Jim. Sure, he likes motorcycles, but the name just seems to fit, a mixture of good humor and danger.
He’s been Denver’s Hot Dog King since 2005, with three carts and a brick and mortar restaurant — Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs — at 2148 Larimer St. He’s a 55-year-old, married, gray-haired Air Force brat who claims Alaska as his home turf. He went to the journalism school at the University of Colorado to learn about television — but ended up repossessing cars for 18 years. He calls it stealing cars, but he was just getting them back to the bank. His exotic hot dogs were an immediate hit in Denver, featured on a slew of television food shows — and at lunchtime his restaurant and carts are filled with dudes, dames, business-types and 17th Street dealmakers. These aren’t $1 dogs; these are gourmet tube steaks of reindeer, veal, wild boar, duck, buffalo, pheasant, rattlesnake. His signature dog is the elk jalapeno cheddar brat topped with cream cheese and caramelized onions. All the dogs go for about $8 each – and he sells about 12,000-a-month with a staff of 25. He’s regularly approached about franchising, going national – but for now Denver is home for Biker Jim and the thousands of dogs he sells. We sit down for brunch at Udi’s on Colfax. He gets a crab omelet. No drinks, just water. Biker Jim is clean and sober now for 23 years. And the way he tells it, that’s a good thing.
Biker Jim: The world is a much safer place without me getting high. Bill Husted: Did your friends come to you? BJ: My friends were done with me long before. The police came to me and kind of suggested it. BH: And then you were a repo man. BJ: I was in school when I got the job repossessing cars. It was great part-time work and I made decent money. And I was getting divorced. If you’re feeling bad about yourself there’s nothing like stealing somebody’s car to make you feel better. I kept doing it instead of pursuing any kind of journalism career. I was making about $75,000 a year. BH: Was it dangerous? BJ: I have had a gun pointed at me about half-a-dozen times. And it’s amazing the look on people’s faces when they are pointing a gun at you and they tell you to do something and you say ‘No.’ BH: How did the hot dog thing start? BJ: I was burned out on repo long before I stopped doing it. I was on vacation in Anchorage and I have buddy there who’s been selling hot dogs on the street for 21 years. I’m telling him how sick I was of repo and he said, ‘You should do this. You’d be good at it. You’d have a good time.’ So for me, it was an opportunity to not steal cars anymore. He knew a guy in Boise who was selling a hot dog cart so I drove there and bought the cart. I got lucky with a location in Skyline Park and I started out with the reindeer sausage and a buffalo brat. BH: Did you have any idea this would take off? BJ: Absolutely not. I just didn’t want to steal cars anymore. But you know when you do something and you don’t run into a lot of resistance? Oh sure, we’ve worked 12 hours in 100 degree weather and 8 degree weather. But opportunities just seem to continue to present themselves to me. BH: What are the wildest things you serve now? BJ: The bacon wrapped pheasant gets lots of attention. And the Bat Dog, which is just a bacon, avocado and tomato dog, but the Bat Conservancy sent me an email about it. BH: How do you think these things up? BJ: Well, I don’t have a great palate, but I am pretty good at putting together things I like. BH: And why does Denver love your dogs so much? BJ: We dig our food. We think we’re doing something really cool with food and I ‘get’ customer service. I learned early on with a street cart that you have a finite amount of time to get a customer invested in your product. I understand that, getting a customer involved. The food has to be good and the service has to be good. And I tend to like people, so it makes me a good owner but a bad manager. BH: What is it about hot dogs and July 4th? BJ: It’s the people’s food and always has been. BH: Where do you shop for your clothes? BJ: Are you kidding? I’ve been wearing the same thing for my whole life. Blue jeans and T-shirts, motorcycle boots or sandals. BH: What’s your biggest fear? BJ: People are going to find out what a [jerk] I am. BH: On what occasion would you lie? BJ: When it’s convenient. BH: What don’t you like about your appearance? BJ: I’m having a hard time realizing I am as old as I am. I am way too young to have as much history as I have. BH: What’s your greatest achievement? BJ: Helping 25 people make rent. BH: What don’t you like in other people? BJ: Pretension. BH: Greatest extravagance? BJ: I like gadgets, cars, motorcycles. That’s where I spend my money, not that I have a lot of it. BH: Where would you most like to live? BJ: In a place where the yard took care of itself. BH: What’s your most treasured possession? BJ: Sobriety. BH: What do you consider the lowest depths of misery? BJ: Addiction. I couldn’t have been more miserable or been a more miserable person. I was an old man at 23. BH: What is your favorite thing to do? BJ: I love riding my bike and I love serving people hot dogs. I am a hot dog ninja. BH: Who are your favorite writers? BJ: Right now I’m reading James Lee Burke. I love early [Hunter S.] Thompson. BH: What wouldn’t you eat, even to be polite? BJ: I eat everything. I’d eat a cockroach if someone went to the trouble to prepare it for me. BH: Greatest regret? BJ: Probably being such a jerk as a kid that I ruined my relationship with my parents. BH: What would you like on your tombstone? BJ: This side up.
This in one in a occasional series of interviews for the Denver Business Journal by former Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Husted. You can reach Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-949-3675.