Michigan vendors to face off in 'Food Court Wars'

 Couple gave idea of cart business plenty of thought before launch

By Rachel Greco
Lansing State Journal

EATON RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Mark McGee and his wife, Krysta, say they nearly hit rock bottom five years ago before one crazy idea saved them.

Today that venture, a self-started gourmet hotdog cart business operated on the streets of downtown Eaton Rapids, is earning them national exposure, according to the Lansing State Journal.

In late May the Eaton Rapids residents will appear on an episode of the Food Network’s “Food Court Wars.” The reality-based competition pits two contestants against one another in an effort to win one year of rent-free eatery space at an area mall.

McGee’s business, Mark’s Gourmet Dogs, spent the week of March 17 to 21 filming with the national show in an effort to win his own spot at the Lansing Mall food court. The show will air sometime in late May and for now the outcome is a secret.

Five years ago though, if you’d asked McGee, 32, what chance his family venture had of getting him on television he probably wouldn’t have thought it was possible.

McGee and Krysta were just trying to get back on their feet in 2009 after Mark’s layoff a few months earlier from a job selling cellphones. They invested everything they had in a hotdog cart.

At $5,000, the cart took all of their savings as well as some loans from relatives. The couple had just $30 left in the bank when they set up shop on the streets of their hometown.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is a story,’” said McGee, of the day he took the cart out for the first time. “’We have $30 left in our pocket and I have to make this work.’ As I was making my way downtown I thought, ‘If this works it could be the greatest story ever.’”

There was a lot riding on the simple idea but the couple said they gave Mark’s Gourmet Dogs plenty of thought before deciding to open.

Krysta was pregnant at the time with the couple’s son Christian, now 6, and she said both she and her husband had enrolled in courses at Lansing Community College. Then they stumbled onto the idea for their business during a visit to a community yard sale.

“It was loaded full of people and I looked at Mark and said, ‘If we had a grill and hot dogs I bet we could make money,” said Krysta.

Mark, who had been taking business classes at LCC, latched on to the idea. He said he drew up a business plan and suddenly saw potential.

“She said that and I was just like, ‘Man, that’s perfect,’” said McGee. “So I got online and started doing research, trying to figure out if it was actually feasible. We put a plan together and when I was done we were like, ‘Let’s do this.’ You know, why not?”

The cart is just a tow-away stand that fits in a 10x10-foot space. From it the McGees serve a vast and creative menu of hotdogs, using everything from standard beef hotdogs to duck dogs and polish sausages.

Customers can order them plain, with onions, mustard or chili. They can also indulge in some popular options that the McGees have created over the years. Some of the more fanciful options include the “Arizona dog,” with guacamole, bacon, tomatoes and sour cream, or the “Mac-a-weenie,” a polish sausage served with macaroni and cheese on top.

Most menu items are in the $5.50 range.

The business is seasonal, from March to November. Mark’s Gourmet Dogs is open every day from 11 a.m. until as late as 8 p.m. He parks in various spots along Main Street.

On average, McGee said the couple sells about 100 hot dogs a day, sometimes more.

It pays the bills, said McGee, who was appointed to the Eaton Rapids City Council in January. But every winter he has to supplement income from the cart with minimum wage jobs until the hotdog stand can be opened again in the spring.

Eventually, the couple, both Eaton Rapids High School graduates, said they dream of opening up a year-round restaurant while at the same time offering the hot dog cart business seasonally.

It was in passing last fall that the McGees heard about “Food Court Wars” intention to film a local episode in Lansing. Friends mentioned it and suggested that they consider applying.

“The next night Mark couldn’t sleep and he emailed the show,” said Krysta. The couple heard back from the show’s staff the very next day but it took several months of interviews before the McGees learned that they would compete against Grand Grillin of Lansing.

The McGees got the good news a week before Christmas. “Food Court Wars” filmed the couple for five days in total, spending one day in Eaton Rapids.

The experience was stressful, he said, but no more so than the business he and Krysta have been invested in for five years.

“To win, that would be huge,” said McGee. “That would really help us. That’s me not having to get a crappy job next winter.”

Regardless though, the couple said the opportunity and the exposure it will give Mark’s Gourmet Dogs is worthwhile either way.

“We really went into it thinking it would be a win-win,” said Krysta. “No matter what, we’re still a business after the show airs. Win or lose we’re a business and the publicity that we get from this is amazing. It’s showcasing our food and what we do.”