There was this guy, see, who ran a hot dog stand just outside the factory gate, and several days each week, Rubino bought lunch from him. Two foot-longs with yellow mustard and relish. And every day as he trudged back to his company job in the company town, Rubino thought, “What if
He put a lid on the idea, allowing it to simmer for most of the next three decades and a couple of career tweaks until, in the winter of 2009 after 13 years selling new cars, Rubino found himself rocking on his heels, surrounded by a million dollars worth of gleaming German automotive genius … and dreading the moment the next prospective customer pushed through the door to the BMW of Sarasota showroom.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “It used to be, selling a car, it was great; there was no higher high. And suddenly, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t even want to go over and meet the people, shake their hands, none of it.”
Neither a middle manager laid off in the Great Recession nor yet another baby boomer gone middle-age crazy, Gerald Rubino is, at 55, doing what he believes in his marrow he was set upon Earth to do.
Not that co-workers universally cheered. “Some of them gave me ‘the look,’
And now? “Man,” says a regular patron who sounds like he wishes he’d thought of it first, “he’s killin’ it.”
Rubino shrugs at that, “killin’ it” being a relative term. His one-man, one-cart operation, sort of a food truck without the truck, won’t make him the Bill Gates of takeaway dining, but it does a good bit more than simply pay its bills. How much more? Let’s just say Rubino isn’t encouraging his wife, Renee Rubino, who does corporate sales for a long-haul trucking company, to join him over the steamer.
Monday through Saturday, Rubino hitches his custom-made (in St. Petersburg) cart to a 30-year-old red Toyota Tercel all-wheel-drive station wagon for the drive up from Grand Hampton just across the county line in New Tampa.
Executive Hotdog (“Who puts executives and hotdogs together?” he says. “It’s a — what’s that word? — oxymoron.”) opens by noon and serves until 6 p.m., or until the dinner rush subsides.
From the preparation of his wares to the maintenance of his cart, Rubino is preternaturally fastidious, spreading condiments with surgical precision and keeping fresh-buffed surfaces, all the while making it home most nights without a blemish on his (remember: starched white) shirt.
The details are revealing; don’t think his regulars don’t notice. Dick Regintin, 72, a retired IBM consultant from, coincidentally, Akron, has been swinging by several times each month for a couple of years. He takes his with onions only; his wife likes mustard, ketchup and relish. Says Regintin, “We get real upset whenever he takes a day off.”
The hot dog stand is a guilty pleasure for the figures-watching sales force at the nearby Ulta beauty supply superstore, says assistant manager Lyn Wright. “Best hot dog guy around,” says Wright, who succumbs to temptation about once a week.
“I never thought of it as a gutsy move,” Rubino says. “Maybe ignorance is bliss, but, really, I am not a chance-taker.” Instead, Rubino is a dream-follower. A belated one — “I should have done this years ago; I’m the best boss I ever had” — but nevermind.
Once upon a time, Gerald Rubino wondered what it would be like to be the hot dog guy. Years later, he’s found out. It’s a story with a happy ending.