Mike’s Hot Dogs serves up a bite of Chicago in downtown Sandy Springs.
Chicago blues play nonstop on the sound system. Images of Chicago institutions – the Cubs, the Bulls, the late actor John Belushi – cover the walls. Customers have contributed expired Illinois license plates so the floor-to-ceiling display bears an authentic touch of home. And the biggest seller on the menu is, of course, the Chicago-style hot dog.
Chicago and its hot dogs have found fans in metro Atlanta. On June 16, Zagat, which provides customer-based restaurant views, named Mike’s one of the 10 best hot dogs in metro Atlanta. Voters in the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s “Best of Atlanta” survey last year made it the top “reader’s pick” for hot dogs. And yelp.com, the online review site, gives it four of five stars.
“My expectations were lowered because, let’s face it, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you couldn’t pay me to eat a hot dog,” one Yelp reviewer wrote. “I’ve had the best and that’s that. However, I had a wonderful surprise when I ate my hot dog. It felt like home.”
That’s been a big part of Mike’s appeal from the start. Mike Sweeney, who gave the place its name, opened the restaurant to serve Chicago-style food, including the city’s hot dogs dressed with tomatoes, peppers and the like, Polish sausages and Italian beef, still the mainstays of the menu. Elvis Hajdarevic, a Bosnian refugee who bought the restaurant 3½ years ago after managing it for four years, says he still buys all his sausages and meats from Chicago.
“Everything has to be original from the city,” the 30-year-old Hajdarevic said. “You can’t make a Chicago dog without a poppy seed bun. If I made them differently, people would start riots.”
Mike’s now sells more than 5,000 hot dogs a month, Hajdarevic said after a quick calculation. And while most of Mike’s customers live in or near Sandy Springs, the restaurant draws fans from across metro Atlanta, and even Tennessee, for special items such as its Italian beef sandwich, he said.
At one time, prior Mike’s owners tried expanding to other metro communities, Hajdarevic said. They planned to operate five restaurants, he said, but the expansions all closed. Only the Sandy Springs location, the original, continues operation, he said.
Hajdarevic, who came to the United States at age 16, said he was introduced to Mike’s when he was working at a discount store in the same shopping mall. Hot dogs reminded him of a kind of sausage he’d eaten in his home in eastern Europe, so he ate at Mike’s all the time, he said. “I was the biggest customer,” he said.
After he bought the business, he made sure to change little so he could continue its appeal. He did start playing blues on the sound system – earlier owners liked 1960s music, such as the Beatles, on the soundtrack – and kept adding images of Chicago and other bits of Americana to the display Sweeney had started on the restaurant walls, he said. “He came up with it, but it wasn’t this good,” Hajdarevic said. “I made it better.”
He points to photos on display of Mike’s customers who have been eating at its wooden booths for decades. Some paired photos depict customers when they were children and then again as adults. “There’s something for everyone on this wall,” Hajdarevic said. “Niney-nine percent of my customers see something they like. … See this [photo of a] little girl? That’s her right here [in another photo nearby]. She’s even bigger now. She walked in a couple of days ago.”
Mike’s customers keep coming back, so he’ll keep serving up Mike’s Chicago Hot Dogs. And he’ll keep eating them, too. “I love them. I still love them,” he said, grinning. “I actually had one earlier today. As a quality check.”