For decades, the opening of Le Dog has been a rite of spring on East Liberty. So when the tiny, red-painted hot dog stand instead posted a sign sending customers to its Main Street branch, word traveled fast.
“Don’t be sorry!” owner Jules Van Dyck-Dobos says when a reporter calls to commiserate. “We were there thirty-five years. Now we have an opportunity to expand on Main Street.”
Born in Hungary, Van Dyck-Dobos fled with his family after the Soviet invasion in 1956. They landed in Ann Arbor, where his father did photography for the U-M and eventually opened his own studio at the corner of Division and William. Jules graduated from MSU’s hotel and restaurant school, worked in high-end restaurants, and was managing a big one in Chicago when he came home for a visit in the summer of 1979. Walking around the block from his father’s studio, he recalls, he came across the vacant Clark’s Caramel Corn Castle and asked his sister, “What’s this?”
By then “sick and tired of working eighty-hour weeks” in fine dining, he decided on the spot to rent the building and open a hot dog stand. In the early years, he backed up his top-quality dogs with some extraordinary specials, including roast duck and “pheasant under Styrofoam,” before settling on a roster of 428 soups that he rotates throughout the year.
He added the Main Street location seventeen years ago, when developer Ed Shaffran turned the old Kline’s department store into a retail mini-mall. Van Dyck-Dobos’s wife, Ika, ran the new takeout window on Main, while he stayed on E. Liberty. But he says he’s been on month-to-month tenancy there for years, so when the chance came to expand on Main–and secure Le Dog’s future–he grabbed it. (He doesn’t know what will become of the castle.)
To customers, the Main Street Le Dog appears unchanged, but big things are afoot backstage. On Thursdays and Fridays, when the line for lobster bisque sometimes stretches out the door, as many as five people may be working in the 200-square-foot space. By June, construction will be under way on a new kitchen and storeroom that will nearly triple the workspace.
Van Dyck-Dobos credits Shaffran and architect David Esau with masterminding the design, including “taking me by the hand” in applying for permission from the Historic District Commission to add a window at the back of the building. It won’t be a takeout window–just a way to “know if it’s raining or snowing. Right now we have no idea what the weather is, and it makes a difference” in planning how much food to prepare.
The big change is that he and Ika are working less, and Ika’s son Miki is working more. Jules sees Miki–pronounced “Micky”–as Le Dog’s future. “He’s like a sponge,” he says. “He watches me and learns everything that I have experienced in my forty-five years of hospitality.
“He’s twenty-eight, and we have a brand new granddaughter. She’s three years old, and that’s one reason we’re stepping back. Omika–a blend of the German word for grandmother and Ika’s name–is happy to have her days off, so she can have her days with little Lucia.”
Le Dog, 306 S. Main, 327-0091. Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Closed Sat. & Sun.