Twenty years ago, if you asked Jim Pittenger where he saw himself in 2015, he probably wouldn’t have said running a successful hot dog business. But after years stuck in an unsatisfying career repossessing cars, the reformed vegetarian took a gamble. At the age of 48, Pittenger started down the unlikely road of hot-dogging with a single street cart. It’s a move that’s paid off—Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs has since grown to include multiple carts and two brick and mortar shops. Throngs of devotees flock to Biker Jim’s to enjoy eclectic dogs like rattlesnake and pheasant, and, if they’re really lucky, a slice of Pittenger’s exquisite cheesecake. Here, Pittenger dishes on his love/hate relationship with the creamy treat, and why you won’t typically see it on the menu at Biker Jim’s.
5280: Most folks associate you with gourmet hot dogs but your true love is cheesecake. Is there a reason you don’t make it at your restaurants?
JP: I never considered that I’d have a hot dog business. I thought at one point I might have a cheesecake business. I made cheesecakes a lot. When I first started Jim’s Biker Dogs I sold slices off of the cart, but nobody was buying them. Number one, it’s like, who’s going to eat a slice of cheesecake at lunch? And I made giant slices—it would be 12 slices [to each cake]. Ultimately I ended up making cheesecake for a couple of restaurants. The Appaloosa Grill carried my cakes for about two years. The first time I went there and saw Biker Jim’s cheesecake on the menu, $6.95, that was like the proudest moment of my life. Appaloosa Grill started selling 16 slices to a cake, and I was like, “oh, that makes sense.” Sixteen reasonably priced slices as opposed to 12 so big they’ll make you sick. It was great because they wanted a different cheesecake every week, so I came up with a lot of great recipes. But here’s the thing: Cheesecakes are a fragile thing, you have about three days tops [to sell them]. Selling them off of the carts was just stupid—I ate a lot of cheesecake, I gave away a lot of cheesecake. And they took me hours to make.
Once in a while we do it at the store, if it’s somebody special I’ll do a cheesecake for them. But I realized a while back it takes me one minute to sell a hot dog that costs two dollars more than a slice of cheesecake that took hours to make. Oh, the amount of time I [suddenly] had available.
Bonus: All this cheesecake talk making you hungry? You’re in luck—Pittenger’s recipe for his Top Hat and Tails (brownie and white chocolate) treat is included in 5280: The Cookbook. Find the dessert on page 130.