Steve Ewing is a familiar face in the local music scene. He first made a name for himself as the frontman for the popular rock/funk/ska/reggae/you name it act the Urge, a post he held from the '80s until the band's breakup in 2001. After spending some time in Los Angeles, Ewing moved back to St. Louis and re-established himself as a fixture on the music scene. He now plays around 200 shows a year, most of them in town, with either his full band or as an acoustic duo with guitarist Adam Hansbrough.
But despite already being ubiquitous in the music scene, Ewing is enhancing his local celebrity with his latest venture: Steve's Hometown Hot Dogs. Taking inspiration from a post-concert craving, Ewing started an outdoor hot dog stand, which is located at East Grand and 2nd Street. (They also do catering for large events.) Steve's Hometown Hot Dogs is in its second operating season; they stay open from March until the end of October each year. Fresh off an appearance at Taste of St. Louis, A to Z talked to Ewing about his business, cross-promoting his music while he sells hot dogs (and visa versa), and being recognized when he's working his stand.
Bob McMahon: How did you come up with the idea to start a hot dog stand? Steve Ewing: This was something that I knew I had to start because I plan all these shows and blah, blah, blah... at the end of the night, everybody's hungry, everybody's starving and needs something to eat. And so the initial idea was, "How can I have mobile vending at every show I do?" And that's nearly impossible because of all the different ordinances and different municipalities.
When I first started... I [decided I had] to have a daytime gig with this business until I can figure out some employees. The idea for that was to go around where people are working and they need food quick and fast and cheap, and I parked right out there by Procter & Gamble and it's been great. Business has been steady and I've got a lot of repeat customers.
Had you been doing anything during the day before you started this? I assume you play most of your shows at night. Well, I'm my own agent, for the most part, so I do a lot of the booking. I spent at least three or four hours a day just doing emails and phone calls with the venues. From the music side of things, I'm self-managed. That's kind of like my day job. When I took on this new business, I was like "Well, I'm going to have to hire an assistant," so I did just that. And so he's sort of taken over a lot of that part of the business.
Do you often get recognized like "Hey, it's that guy from The Urge"? Yeah, totally. Especially down by Procter & Gamble I'd say probably most of my customers know who I am. It helps with the business. We sell CDs out there, so it works out great.
Do you do anything else with your music to promote this business? Like at the end of the show do you say "Come down and buy a hot dog from me."? I'll tell you what, that's one of the reasons why I really wanted to do Taste of St. Louis this year, to really present it on a larger scale, like "Hey, not only am I doing music, you guys know that, but I also have another business." So I wanted to present it on a bigger scale. And it worked out great. I was able to promote the business by doing a big event like that. In the future, I will be doing more events, more bigger events and working on possibly running the business at some regular installations, places like Home Depot, things like that. So we'll have multiple satellites, we'll have multiple food carts going at one time.
Have you ever considered writing a jingle for your cart? (Laughs) You know, when we get into television advertising, I would imagine I'll have to. Without a doubt. The cool thing about St. Louis is there's so many great ways to market at the street level. The community is kind of small in a sense, and I've been a public figure in the community for so many years. So I don't have to go crazy with television advertising. I can really do a lot of word of mouth and things like that. For food, for what I'm doing it works out great that way. I get a lot of repeat customers.
By the same token, do you ever play your CDs at your hot dog stand? I do, just for a little while cause sometimes I get tired of hearing it. My daughter, that's what she wants to hear in my car, so I hear my music all day long. During the rush, I'll put on the oldies station or something like that. Earlier in the morning, we'll play Steve Ewing music and people will come by and be like, "What's that?"
One thing I should ask, because you sell hot dogs: Aren't you or weren't you at one point a vegetarian? I still am, and we do veggie items. We have a vegetarian meatball sandwich and we also have veggie burgers.
So you don't have any moral qualms with selling something you personally wouldn't eat? No, I don't have any problems with that at all. That's not the reason I'm a vegetarian. I love meat, I just chose not to eat it because it got hard for me on the road, touring and stuff and it was kind of easier for me to discipline myself that way and keep myself healthier while I was on tour. And I just kind of kept going with the lifestyle. But occasionally I'll still eat a few things here and there. I'm not a strict vegetarian.
Cool. So other than your local celebrity, what would you say makes your hot dogs or your hot dog cart different from any other one on the street? We go all out. We do Nathan's Coney Island hot dogs, we do sausages. A lot of times we'll buy local sausages, so everything is fresh. It's hot. It's quick. When you come down there, you're going to get full-service from us. Anything you want on your dog, you're going to get full-service. And you're going to be able to choose from a lot of things to put on your dog or sausage. It's fast, like I said, when you get down there, it's fast. For sausage, we'll kind of switch things up. Sometimes we'll do Polish, sometimes we'll do brats, sometimes we'll do Polish and brats and sometimes we'll do a New Orleans sausage and switch it up down there.