"Biker Jim" Pittenger is Denver's undeniable hot dog champion. Not just any hot dogs, but hot dogs made with elk, rattlesnake and Alaskan reindeer. He's on the cusp of opening a new eatery in suburban Highlands Ranch and has plans to more or less conquer the world, one sausage at a time.
Jim Pittenger, better known as Biker Jim, repossessed 12,000 cars from 1987 and 2005, and had a half dozen guns pointed at him along the way -- including one by a guy in his underwear in Boulder around 1990. (He went to jail sans pants.)
In 2005, Pittenger had something of an epiphany -- or as he puts it "one of those what-the-fuck moments” -- after meeting with the "hot dog king" in his home state of Alaska.
"The hot dog thing never occurred to me until nine years ago," he says. "I just wanted to stop stealing cars. I felt I'd put in my time."
He quit his gig as a repo man and invested $8,000 a used hot dog cart, insurance and inventory for the launch. Biker Jim subsequently started selling his wares on the 16th Street Mall, namely Alaskan reindeer sausage, Italian sausage and other "more or less routine” variations on the trusty hot dog.
But he soon became known for experimentation. "We started doing a 'Wild on Wednesday' special," he says. He'd offer Guinness-soaked bratwurst, lunenburg, linguica and other obscure ethnic sausages. "The 'Wild on Wednesday' more or less evolved into our regular menu. We started getting a reputation for being batshit weird but really good."
Things got even weirder after he opened Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs in the Ballpark neighborhood at 2148 Larimer St. in 2011. "We just had so many more cooking implements of destruction," he says.
It shows. You can get Alaskan reindeer, rattlesnake-pheasant, duck cilantro or the cryptozoologically named jack-a-lope sausages. Toppings are similarly unusual, including cactus, wasabi aioli, salsa, bleu cheese and bacon-onion marmalade.
Boom timesHe quit his gig as a repo man and invested $8,000 a used hot dog cart, insurance and inventory for the launch.
Pittenger now has three carts in operation (usually stationed on the 16th Street Mall, the Auraria campus and Buckley Air Force Base) and a fourth under construction, and a Highlands Ranch restaurant location slated for opening by the end of the month. His catering business is also gaining traction. And he's just getting started.
"I have delusions of grandeur -- or at least grandeurs of adequacy," he jokes. "When I started this it was just buying a job. Now I have 23 employees. I'd like to see 2,000 people having a job because I started selling wieners on a street corner."
After Highlands Ranch, he's eyeballing restaurants in Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Boulder "only if I could get on the Pearl Street Mall," but hocking dogs outside of Colorado might also be in the cards.
"Would I love to be in Vegas? Absolutely. Would I love to be in Austin? Absolutely. Portland would be great. New York would be great. L.A. would be great."
Underpinning his Biker Jim's expansion plans, real and hypothetical, is what Pittenger calls "the street food explosion."
"Street food has evolved and continues to evolve," he says. "Everybody's looking for something new. "Twelve, 13 years ago, comfort food was the big thing. Then it evolved into gourmet burgers." Next, about five years ago, street food emerged, food trucks started rolling into Denver and the trend shows no signs of letting up.
For his part, Pittenger works with local suppliers for almost all of his needs. He gets the majority of his his sausages from Denver's Continental Sausage -- including 30,000 pounds of his bestselling elk sausage in 2013 -- and collaborates on new sausage recipes with the company. His new cart is from Cart Works in Englewood. His ketchup is from Elevation Organic Ketchup in Denver -- and he holds Founder Aaron Wagner in high regard.
"If anybody is going to be flying in a corporate jet, it's Aaron," says Pittenger. "He's already outrun any local ketchup company I've ever seen."
Pittenger dabbled with a food truck, but prefers the cart. "A cart costs a tenth of what a truck costs, and it takes two-thirds the staff," he explains. "I can have one person cater 200 people and do a fantastic job."
Eat on LarimerAlaskan reindeer, rattlesnake-pheasant and duck cilantro are just a few of the dog options at Biker Jim's.
Biker Jim says Upper Larimer has come a long way in the last decade. "Ten years ago, there really wasn't much," he says. "The Snooze rolled in. Then Twelve. Then Marco's. Then I opened up. Then Trillium and Ignite. Now it's food row."
Urban density is one key, Pittenger notes. "It makes sense. There are 1,000 new residences going in." The critical mass is also, well, critical. "Why is the Phillips 66 across from a Conoco? Why is the Sam's Club next to a Costco?"
And Denver's culinary star continues to rise, he adds. "The food scene in Denver is on fire," he says. He ticks off a few favorites: ChoLon, D'Corazon, the new Stoic & Genuine oyster bar in Union Station and Bonanno Concepts, Frank Bonanno's ever expanding restaurant group.
Bonanno, for his part, calls Biker Jim "an awesome guy, adding, "His concept is great. It's fun. It's not taking things too seriously. I think it could go national."
While Pittenger says it's a phenomenal time for Denver's foodies, it's a different story in the restaurateurs' shoes. "From an employer's point of view, it's a pain in the ass finding good people. They have so many opportunities." This problem is even bigger at Biker Jim's. "In the culinary world, we're like the very pretty trash collectors," he jokes.
And it takes a special blend of talents to man a hot dog cart. "Cart jockeys are kind of a different breed," explains Pittenger. "They're not really a line cook and they're not really a bartender -- you need to have the skills of both. If you're good, it looks easy."
And Pittenger's laid-back vibe makes it look like running a booming business like Biker Jim's look easy, even though it's anything but. Not that he's got any regrets ditching the repo world for hot dogs. "How exciting is it to be your own boss and see something happen?" he says. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Photos by Eric Peterson.