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Mel's Hot Dogs celebrates 40 years in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: July 3, 2013 at 06:33 AM

NORTH TAMPA - It wasn't supposed to be - Mel Lohn, a classically trained musician and saxophone player in a rock band, marking four decades of hawking hot dogs at his namesake restaurant in a small Busch Boulevard building.

But it happened this week, the 40th anniversary of now-iconic Mel's Hot Dogs. The observance coming on the eve of the top dog of patriotic holidays is totally coincidental.

It all began where it still sits, in a former Spanish cafe near Busch Gardens. Remodeling it as a diner-style restaurant took a month, recalls Lohn, 66. "We had everything done and had been permitted by everyone in the city; we were waiting for Coca-Cola" to bring the beverages and menu boards to display those 1973 prices: 79 cents for a hot dog with fries, 20 cents for a small Coke, plus 4 percent tax.

Lohn, "a fairly accomplished musician" on the saxophone, who also played clarinet and flute with various rock 'n' roll bands, launched his new enterprise upon discovering that, unlike his hometown of Chicago, Tampa was lacking. "I went out one day to get a hot dog, and there wasn't a single place in this whole town" to get a good one, he said.

That revelation came at a time when Lohn was "totally devastated professionally" to discover competing female bands were earning three and four times more than his group merely by lip-synching lyrics while performing in provocative outfits. "I realized my success was not based upon my ability. I got sick and tired of it; I had to break away for a while," said Lohn. "It's 40 years later, I'm still between bands."

Lohn lacked restaurant experience, but when he took in $99 that first day - July 3, 1973 - he thought he was rich. "Now we do $99 in the first 15 minutes" of any given day, he said.

Many things, of course, have changed through the decades. His hot dog business suffered no negative response from the healthy eating trend, Lohn said. "Everything in moderation," he suggests. "I think life has too many flavors to ignore." Like most restaurants, his saw a small decrease in sales from the sour economy, he said.

The key to success in an era where some restaurants close within three years?

Some business owners are afraid to charge a fair price, he said. "You have to make a fair profit." Additionally, continuity in food, service and cleanliness is essential. "My wife and I are freaks for cleanliness."

Mel's serves all-beef, kosher-style, natural-casing hot dogs from Vienna Beef of Chicago, one of the world's premiere sausage makers, Lohn said.

Neighborhood changes include more renters and fewer homeowners, he notes. "The anchor of Busch Gardens is always keeping it strong." About six years ago he considered selling the family business. Asking price: $2.4 million.

"We thought maybe it was time to retire," he said of himself and his wife, Virginia ("She really is the key to our success, I can't emphasize that enough."). "What we didn't look at was it didn't make whole lot of sense. What do you do when you retire?" said Lohn, whose two daughters and one son worked at the family business as children.

" I really like what I do. I don't come to work, I come to play. It's like being an actor, my own stage," even his name in lights, said Lohn, known for his quick sarcastic wit and hot-dog puns.

Instead, he offered a "magnificent" longtime employee, Jessica Purvis, the position of general manager. Lohn still spends 20 to 25 hours weekly at his restaurant, more during busy periods, he said. "I'm in and out all the time."

The two-day observance of the Mel's Hot Dogs anniversary will be held July 3 and 4 at the restaurant, 4136 E. Busch Blvd. Customers will receive a "weinerful" complimentary hot dog-themed cupcake from a neighboring business, Cupcake Cache.

Perhaps Lohn sums up his reign best: "Forty years of being the sultan of sausage."

gwilkens@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7124

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