There’s a pile of rubble now where three of Ray’s Red Hots’ nearest competitors used to be.
Lucky Kitchen, Mia Za’s and Pita Pit, all previously just a few steps away from Ray’s on East University, all agreed to sell their restaurants last year to developers of a new student high-rise. With the former restaurants now demolished, the area is primed for one of the many new buildings that now populate the Ann Arbor skyline.
But Ray’s is staying put for the foreseeable future, despite the popularity of their block with developers. “We were actually approached by these guys, and we turned down the offer,” said Ray Johnston, owner and operator. “And part of the reason was, we weren’t necessarily in favor of all these high rises … We wanted to keep a little bit of the old flavor and the funky building. Our feeling was to keep it the way it was.”
Maintaining a landmark
This hot dog shack is definitely one of the shrinking number of remaining landmarks of old Ann Arbor, especially in the area surrounding the renovated East Quad. It’s a continuation of a longtime favorite known as Red Hot Lovers, which passed through multiple owners and caused quite a stir when it closed unexpectedly, in late 2008.
As the owner of the real estate in which Red Hot Lover’s sat, Ray Johnston had seen how hard it was to run a restaurant without intense personal involvement. “This guy lived in New York. He was trying to manage it with these cameras,” he said of his last tenant. “That isn’t going to happen. It’s tough enough when you’re there everyday.”
So Johnston decided to get into the game himself, turning Red Hot Lovers into Ray’s Red Hots. He’s tough on his employees and asks a lot of himself, noting that when he started Ray’s food cart in 2010, he worked 80-hour weeks.
“We all have a lot of ‘sweat equity’ in this place,” said Phil Clark, Ray’s general manager. Ray’s now has three food carts working outdoor events from soccer games to the Ann Arbor Summer Fest—sometimes as many as four events in a day.
Similar, but improved
Much of the retro décor and lived-in atmosphere of Ray’s has been carried over from Red Hot Lover’s, but one thing has been altered by the new owners– the ingredients. Johnston has taken steps to include ingredients sourced from the area, including Angus beef for the dogs and local bakery bread. It’s part of a commitment to give customers a unique, authentic restaurant that can’t be replicated by a detached, corporate chain.
“There’s a reason why Burger King, McDonald’s and Taco Bell are out of downtown Ann Arbor now,” Clark said. “That cheap food, cookie-cutter environment, you just can’t support it here.”
But Ann Arbor supports lovingly made hot dogs, that timeless food of summertime, cities and community. “If steak and potatoes are always reserved for eating at your family dinner table, you’re out in the yard, kicking around a ball when you’re eating a hot dog,” Clark said.
“A lot of people come in from Chicago, and I have family and roots in Chicago,” Johnston said. “They walk in and they say, ‘Ray, this is great. I feel like I’m at home on the old South Side, and the food matches what I grew up on’…. That’s as good a compliment as you’re going to get.”