I’ve been a Le Dog groupie since I moved to Ann Arbor 18 years ago. I couldn’t believe my luck: Just a couple of blocks from work, I could get some of the best soups on this planet, served from an odd red hut inexplicably called Le Dog.
Over the years I’ve never eaten a hot dog there, but Jules Van Dyck-Dobos has become a friend. My habits, however – and my workplace – have shifted. More oriented now to the city’s west side, I view Le Dog’s Main Street location as my go-to spot for pozole, cassoulet, Marrakesh stew, peanut udon – and, of course, lobster bisque. If I don’t eat there once a week, something in my life has gone seriously awry.
I understand the eccentric charm of the East Liberty spot, which Jules refers to as his “baby.” That’s where it all began for him 35 years ago, and not much changed in the cramped, unheated, un-air-conditioned space since then. But when he told me earlier this year that he wasn’t re-opening there this season, and instead would focus on expanding the Main Street location, all I could say was: “Hooray!”
Le Dog’s less-known site has been open for 17 years in the old Kline’s department store building at 306 S. Main. Soups were made at the hut on Liberty then ferried over to Main Street, where his wife Ika has been in charge. Because the counter faces the inside lobby, waiting in line doesn’t involve shivering or getting soaked or breathing exhaust fumes or any of the downsides at the Liberty location.
Expanding on Main Street – in a building owned by local landlord Ed Shaffran – is also part of a succession plan, as Jules and Ika’s son, Miki Wartha, takes on more responsibility for the business. Jules turns 66 next month, and while he’s not retiring, he hopes to scale back a bit.
A few days ago, we talked about all of this, and a lot more, for an interview you can read below. I’m grateful that Jules carved out some time to serve up his thoughts – about his past, the reason he decided to keep his business small, the origin of the name “Le Dog” (it’s not what you might think), possible menu changes, his friendships with other local families, his hopes for the future.
In a column he wrote for Gastronomica a few years ago – now part of the “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie” anthology – Jules acknowledged that his business on East Liberty had become an Ann Arbor landmark. That’s true, but not just because of the distinctive red facade. He’s built Le Dog into a special piece of this town that transcends its location – and this transition will bear that out.
Jules told me he’s happy with the changes taking place, but a little worried that regulars of the East Liberty spot won’t seek him out on Main Street. I hope my fellow soup aficionados will allay his fears. Le Dog at 306 S. Main is open weekdays from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. You should go.
The column you wrote for Gastronomica touched a bit on Le Dog’s origin story. I’m hoping we can start by talking about that.
The origin story goes way before that – to Europe, probably, where I grew up. In Hungary. I was eight years old when we came to the States. My parents always wanted me to have a European education, so they sent me back to Europe when I was 14, on my own. They sent me to a Hungarian school, and during the summers I would go work at hotels. I couldn’t come home, because it was too expensive. It was mostly ships that would go back and forth between Europe and the States. Airplanes were a luxury and very expensive. I remember it took me 10 days the first time I went over by ship. It stopped at every location before we got to Europe. And I was a 14-year-old kid! Quite young, and I guess naive. But I grew up very fast in Europe.
My first job was at a very famous hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It has the highest mountain in Germany at its doorstep. This old grand hotel taught me everything about gastronomy. I started off as a bellboy and worked my way up to various things.
How’d you get that job?
My uncle pulled connections. He was living in München – Munich, in Germany – and Garmisch-Partenkirchen is about 60 miles south of München. He knew the proprietor, Mr. Bader. I remember him as if it were yesterday, and it’s 50 years ago. He invited me to come down for the summer months, when school let out, and I had a wonderful time. I was the only one in the hotel who spoke perfect English, so they took advantage of me to translate menus for “The Cookies” – a touring cooks’ group. They were always the best tippers, so I really got to know them quite well. Their bus would come and I’d be translating for everybody on the bus. As a student, every little bit helped.
That’s when I had my first taste of good, classic cuisine. The chefs in those days were all classically trained, and I loved the food.
After graduating, the Vietnam War was still going on. I had to either wait for the draft to get me, or volunteer. I volunteered for the army, hoping that with my languages, I’d have a chance to go back to Europe – because Ika was waiting for me there. It was quite a surprise for me when it wasn’t Europe I was assigned to, but Alaska. I took Russian courses in Washington, D.C. to supplement Hungarian, German and English. I thought that with those four languages, I’d most likely be sent somewhere in Europe.
But the Bering Strait was heating up as far as military intelligence was concerned, so I spent two years in Anchorage. Ika and I grew apart – you know how it is. It’s all right to write letters back and forth for a year or two, but it tapers off. But there’s a good side to this story! Later on, we met again and are happily married.
After the army, I attended Michigan State University and studied hotel and restaurant management. In those days, after Cornell it was the second best hotel school in the country. I finished that under the G.I. bill, then went to work in various places on the east coast. I was a manager of the officers club at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and at Hotel Hershey in Pennsylvania.
After that I landed a job at The Bakery, a restaurant in Chicago. It started when I was at the university, and I needed a job for the summer. Since Louis Szathmáry [chef and founder of The Bakery] is also Hungarian, I wrote him a nice letter in Hungarian saying I needed a job for the summer. He told me to come by and he’d see what they could do. So he put me behind the dishwasher for two weeks! I did that when I was a junior at the university.
Gradually, I worked my way up until I was general manager of The Bakery, within a very short period of time. But it was devastatingly difficult. We were serving 500 people a night, five courses. Working seven days a week like that, you get burned out. I got burned out after about a year and a half.
During one of my very brief vacations in 1979, I came home to Ann Arbor to visit my parents. They had a photography studio on the corner of Division and William – the Van Dyck-Dobos Studios. I think that was before your time – my father closed it in ’81.
I came home and my sister said, “Let’s take a walk around the block – I want to show you what’s new around here.” We walked around and I saw this little red place that was boarded up. It hadn’t been in operation for the past two or three years because the Clarks didn’t want to continue with Karamel Korn Kastle. And I thought – Boy! This would be a great place to start with hot dogs and lemonade. My sister said she had a perfect name for it: Le Dog. Lemonade and hot dogs! So that’s what we named it.
I gave 30 days notice in Chicago, and then came back here and started working as a hot dog vendor. We had a hot dog cart ready to go for campus, and we did that for about six months. Then winter came. And Michigan winters – as we know from the past winter – can be quite difficult. So I started cooking soups. And more soups. And roast duck, and pheasant under Styrofoam, and lobster bisque, and more classic dishes that people were surprised to find coming out of a little hole-in-the-wall. Because that’s all it is – a hole-in-the-wall. Just 200 square feet.
And after 35 years, we’re doing the same thing here on Main Street – serving good soup. About 428 soups and counting.
What was the first soup you served?
You know, the first one I recall was a bean soup with ham. Here’s what happened. Mary Hunt, who used to be the owner of The Ann Arbor Observer, came in with her daughter, who was just two or three months old. She said, “I want to do an article on you guys, because I heard you just came from Chicago. Can I bring my little daughter?” She rocked her daughter in a stroller during the interview. She asked what I was cooking, and I said, “Bean soup with ham.” She said, “Wow – that smells good!” I remember that as if it were yesterday. It was 35 years ago. So that was my first soup.
As a business owner, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced over the years?
The most important thing is to have a good relationship with the person that owns the building. I’m extremely happy to have Ed Shaffran as our landlord here [at 306 S. Main]. We’re expanding about 370 square feet in the back here, and without Ed we could have never done that.
Ed has connections that I trust very much. He takes me by the hand and walks me through various aspects of getting permits from the city’s historic district commission, from the health department, from builders – every aspect of construction. There’s something about Ed, Ika and I – we have hit it off for 17 years. He’s very fair, and we are fair to him too. We don’t have any exorbitant demands. We could not have done this anywhere else on Main Street.
I think he [Shaffran] has a commitment to this community, and isn’t just looking for the absolute highest rent he can get.
Absolutely. And he takes care of his buildings. His buildings are spic and span. The cleanliness is the highest I’ve seen anywhere. He’ll take care of anything, even in the middle of the night. One of our faucets had a very minor leak, but he was on it within a half hour of when it happened, so there was no catastrophe. I don’t know how to say enough good things about him.
I also have a very good architect. It’s a very small addition we’re putting on, but David Esau [of Cornerstone Design] is doing a wonderful job. I’m a cook! I don’t know how to put together a plan for building something. We’re having a big window in the back. Nobody in the back alley has a window, and I asked David if it would be possible. He said, “Oh, I’ll work on it.” So we got it through the historic district commission to have a 2-foot by 3-foot window! I’m happy about that, because I don’t want to work in a dungeon where you don’t know if it’s raining or snowing or if the sun’s shining.
Will people be able to look inside, to watch you work?
I haven’t decided that. Sometimes when you’re cooking, you don’t want everyone to know your secrets! The Food Network called me several years ago and asked if they could film us. I said no, and they were a little taken aback. But that’s the way it is. I have my secrets.
In your Gastronomica column, you mentioned that in the past you’ve been approached about the possibility of franchising Le Dog. You’ve also had other opportunities to grow. I really respect your business model – running a small business to support your family and the lifestyle that you want. I think that’s undervalued, in our society that’s focused on growth as the metric of success. What motivated you to take the path you’ve chosen?
I’m glad you mentioned the word family, because that’s very important. It’s a totally different world than it was 100 years ago, when you’d have a small business that would be passed on to the next generation. In Ann Arbor, I can’t think of too many families that have done that. The Metzgers – John Metzger is very competent, and is a very dear friend of mine who’s doing a wonderful job. He’s fourth generation [at Metzger's restaurant], and that’s rare.
I went to school with Ken Weber, he was my classmate [at Michigan State University]. His son went to school with my son Miki. You can draw parallels – although of course we are a small ant compared to Weber’s. But the family on both sides is passing on the business from one generation to the next. Ken’s father just turned 100. I remember Michael [Weber] when he was playing with Miki at our house, and we asked if he was going to take over Weber’s. He’d say he didn’t know, because it was far in the future. And Miki would say the same thing. They expanded – I have not.
But I’m happy with the way things worked out. I can take vacations! I just came back from three weeks in Africa, where we toured the Cape. It was wonderful. Ika’s in Germany right now visiting her other grandkids, and she’s having great fun. You have to make room for yourself. I have worked long enough – sometimes days until 10 o’clock at night, when we served pheasant. I don’t want to do that anymore.
We have a little niche and that niche is called – I don’t know if you noticed – La Soup. It’s “Le Dog = La Soup.” This is our new name. I wish I could drop Le Dog – it’s confusing. People think that all we have is hot dogs. You’ll see in some of the comments on Yelp: Why are they called Le Dog when they concentrate on soups? Well, I can’t go back 35 years and change the name, but I can do it now.
Are you eventually going to drop Le Dog and just call it La Soup?
How would you feel about that?
I’d feel weird!
I think I’ll keep both.
That’s a good compromise. One of the other things that’s known about Le Dog is the sign that says “NO Coke, NO Pepsi, NO Pop or Soda. EVER!!” I’ve always assumed that just reflected your own preferences. Is there a story behind that?
The first year we were open for the art fair, Liberty Street was open, so we still had cars going past in front of the shop. The art fair used to be quite small compared to what it is now. This was in the early ’80s. But the second year, they shut down the street and we were supposed to get our delivery from Coke, but Coke said “Sorry, we can’t deliver to you.”
At that time, we had all this equipment from them and we served Coke. I said, “You can’t deliver for the art fair – our busiest week of the whole year? Well, then why don’t you take your equipment home with you.” And so I kicked them out, and put the sign up. It’s been that way ever since. It’s not an idiosyncrasy of mine.
You have a long memory! What about the ban on using cell phones?
We have a line. If you’re talking on your cell phone and you can’t give me your order, and I reach behind you and ask for the next person’s order, it might upset you. Maybe you’re a doctor or lawyer, and it’s an important call. But at least you’re prepared.
What’s something about Le Dog that might surprise even your regulars?
I don’t follow movements or hype. I’m not a locavore. I don’t follow fads. If you look at any foodie magazine, you find these chefs who are staring down at their food from two inches away, putting salt on the food. Don’t breathe on my food!
I just came back from South Africa. We visited some of the most famous South African restaurants, and there are many of them. The European tourism trade is huge on the Cape. Some of them were really world-class restaurants, but they were preparing food with tweezers! Give me a break.
I want to serve food that people are going to eat. They’re not going to take pictures of it. How many times when you go to a restaurant nowadays, and before the person starts eating, they take pictures of their food to show their friends? It’s food! We’re not talking about something that will be on the front cover of Food & Wine. I want to serve good food that people will eat and enjoy, and not just look at or take pictures of.
Although I have to say, I’ve seen plenty of people posting photos of their Le Dog soup on Facebook.
<wry smile> I wonder how to respond to that. I thank them, because it’s an introduction for some people. I should be grateful.
One of the things I cherish is The Bakery Restaurant Cookbook by your mentor, Louis Szathmáry. You gave that to me right after we launched The Chronicle in 2008, and I haven’t prepared anything from it because I feel I need to really set aside time to do that. Also, I’m a little intimidated by some of the recipes. The roast suckling pig, for example! Can you talk a little about him, and what you learned from him?
Chef Szathmáry is a very interesting man. He’s done so many things – not only for gastronomy, but also for the whole Hungarian diaspora.
He had one of the largest collections of Hungarian books in the world. Some of the old books that were burned by the Russians when they came in would have been totally lost without him. He was also a doctor of psychology. During the war, he was a spy for the Americans. He came over from Europe in ’52 and established The Bakery in the early ’60s. He was a multi-faceted individual.
He was also a very dear stepfather to me. He grabbed me under the arms and pushed me forward. He taught me 90% of what I know about cooking. In a few short months, when I was with him during the summers, I got more from him than from the university. He used to be one of the main chefs for Armour, and did the whole flight kitchens for Pan Am and TWA. I could go on and on – he was a genius in many respects.
The whole concept of changing classical cuisine started with him. He was the first one to use modern equipment in preparing many things in the kitchen, like tilting braziers, or steam-jacketed kettles, or flash freezing of certain food. When he worked for Armour, he developed the concept of freezing food to take it across country.
He ran The Bakery until 1989. It had a long life. It was the premier restaurant in Chicago during that time.
Do you share his philosophy of cooking – is that such a thing? Do you have a philosophy of cooking?
No, no. That would be putting it to such a lofty station. If your mother was a very good cook, would you say that it was a gift? Would it be an art? Or would it be just love for preparing something? It’s very hard to categorize – as with many things that are a little bit art, a little bit science. I don’t know where one stops and the other one starts.
Do you ever watch the shows on TV that feature chefs and cooking?
I don’t watch them. I watched one or two, because I was curious. But that was enough for me. First of all, it’s not real. Second of all, it’s hype – and I don’t like hype.
We do have a very time-oriented profession. When I open my window at 11:30, I should be ready. And so, 10 minutes before I open up, I am moving. Marolyn today called me Speedy Gonzales for a half hour before we open. And I thought: Is that good or is that bad? Or is that like the Tasmanian Wolf! So there are time constraints. But it’s a different clock than what you see on TV. When I start at 7 o’clock preparing some of the soups, I’m looking four or five hours down the road – not 30 minutes, because that’s all that a network will give you.
On the other hand, TV is entertainment. I might entertain good customers, but this is serious business. This is not a game for me. I would have grown tired of it if it had been a game for 35 years.
Do your days now resemble what they were like 35 years ago?
Yes, although you learn as you go along. There are certain things I don’t spend as much time on. I’ll be honest with you – I buy my potatoes already peeled. Gordon Food Service will provide me with peeled potatoes. It’s not because I’m lazy. As Chef Louis would say: Why should I do something that somebody else can do for me exactly the same way? Another thing he would say is: Why knock yourself out, if there are better ways to do it?
I don’t have to go to the market. I can call up the people at the market and they will deliver to me. It’s the exact same produce, as if I would spend 45 minutes at the market. I enjoy going to the market, and I see a lot of people who are customers of mine. They say: “Jules, what are you getting today?” So I take them to my favorite purveyors, introduce them – and it’s more of a social relationship. Believe me, in Ann Arbor, the farmers market is a social institution, and I enjoy that. But I don’t want to do that every Wednesday and Saturday.
What do you do when you’re not preparing for your business?
People ask me what I do when I go home, and they’re very surprised when I say that I go home and cook two hours for Ika and myself. Why not? I love what I do – why should I stop because I went home? Not every day, but many days.
What’s your favorite dish that’s not sold at Le Dog?
I do have many Hungarian dishes that I like very much. Szekely Gulyas is a very Hungarian dish of pork, potatoes and sauerkraut, of all things. I have it once a year at Le Dog. It’s goulash. We put an “h” on the end for English speakers.
Hungarian has 10 more letters in its alphabet than English – 36 letters. There are many combined letters – ly, ny, and sz, for example. Linguistically, it’s a very beautiful language. It’s very rare and unique. There’s no other language like Hungarian. We take pride in our literature.
Are there other Hungarians in Ann Arbor?
Yes, there’s quite a few. I try to meet as many of them as I can – especially the students. They miss their Hungarian cooking, so whenever I find a Hungarian post-doc student, I invite their family to dinner so they can feel at home.
If you stand in line sometimes, there are so many languages. Marolyn speaks Spanish to all the Spanish-speakers. Ika speaks German, I speak Hungarian and sometimes Russian. We’re actually quite multi-lingual.
I have that experience when I’m riding the bus, where there’s a broad cross-section of nationalities. A lot of that is because of the university, but not all.
Can you imagine Ann Arbor without the university? Can you imagine how much intellectual stimulation there is from the foreign influences we have in Ann Arbor? Incredible.
We haven’t talked much yet about Le Dog’s transition, and closing the Liberty spot. Have you been thinking about this for a while?
My wife Ika has been asking me to think about it for the past six months. One of the main reasons is that we were cooking down there, and bringing everything over here at 11 o’clock. That is very tiresome – whether it’s raining, or snowing, or traffic jams. It’s quite difficult to do.
Miki was the one who was usually driving back and forth, delivering things here, then taking back pans or whatever we needed. It got to be too tiresome.
The other thing is we don’t have air-conditioning there, and we don’t have heat there. We don’t have any amenities that you’d normally have in a modern kitchen. It used to be a garage for a Model A – that little place was constructed in 1936 for a garage. And we’ve been working out of that little place. Someone told me, “Jules, for a multiple murder, you would have had a bigger cell for a shorter time!” That’s exactly right.
But Le Dog on Liberty is my baby. From the very beginning, from its inception, I nourished it and watched it grow. I enjoyed every minute of it. The first two years were tough – financially, and I didn’t know what to expect. But it blossomed. That’s how good buds should be – they slowly open up. We’ve reached a point like the hibiscus up there [on Le Dog's counter, grown at Jules' home] – it’s open and now we have to say good-bye.
I don’t want to say good-bye, but I’m 66 years old. I want to step back just a little. I’m not quitting, though. Somebody asked me why I was closing. I’m not closing – I’m just expanding to Main Street. That’s my mentality. It’s not a negative, it’s a positive. I can have a good modern kitchen, with a good landlord, with a much easier way of doing things.
I might only come in three days a week, and let Miki and Ika do the rest. Miki has a two-and-a-half-year-old beautiful little daughter, and he deserves to spend some time with her. If we can do it, why not? I mean, how many people out there wish they could spend more time with their kids as they’re growing up?
When I’m 70 years old and Lucia is going to school, then he can take over another day. These are little steps you can do within the family. You can’t do it when you’re extended to two or three places. I’m very, very happy with the way things are.
It’ll stay that way for another four years. Then after that, maybe I’ll do some other work, I don’t know. I’d love to teach, but I think I’ll be too old at 70 to teach. As much as I can, I take classes at the university. I love history, I love literature. If I could be 20 again, I’d be a student forever. And as a senior, there are many courses that are reasonable or even free. The Saturday physics classes are wonderful! Sometimes over my head, but it’s still interesting.
How are you letting customers know about the expansion on Main Street?
The trouble is, a lot of people don’t know we’re on Main Street. People are saying “Le Dog is closing – where are we going to get our soups?” They’re surprised we have another Le Dog on Main Street. I don’t believe in advertising for us. For everyone else, it’s fine. But I have not spent a nickel on advertising for 35 years. And I didn’t need to – knock on wood.
Has your landlord at the Liberty location allowed you to put a notice up there?
I have the lease until the end of this month. I don’t think it can be used for much. It’s such an old structure. Since I was grandfathered in for such a long time, there would have to be major changes done in it.
Is that building in a historic district?
The green house, on the corner of Division and Liberty, is in an historic district – but not the white house that I’m next to. But it’s owned by the same person. I had been interested in acquiring the space [where Le Dog is located], but of course it cannot be separated. So I’m out of there.
Other than the changes we’ve already talked about for your Main Street Le Dog, are there any other plans in the works?
We might tweak our menu a little bit. I don’t know in what way. Let’s get situated first. But people are begging me to bring back certain items that have been missing from the menu for some time. You probably remember the Caesar salad?
Or, God forbid, chocolate shakes or strawberry shakes. People are waiting for that – old regulars.
Might you add items that haven’t been offered before?
I would like to give a definite yes, but I do not want to at this time. My hopes are one step at a time.
What’s the timeframe for this Main Street buildout?
I think we should be ready in two months at the latest. We have this area [the new restrooms in the lower level] built out already, and just need an inspector from the city to OK it. The space in the back [behind the current Le Dog kitchen] will be demolished starting next week. It should take six weeks at the latest.
And I don’t know if we’ll be open for the art fair! [Le Dog typically closes when the annual art fairs are in town.] That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? To have the new kitchen ready for art fair, and just for the hell of it, open for art fair? But I don’t think so. We’ll see.
Are there any plans to add tables in the lower level, for people to eat?
We’ve been here 17 years – it’s worked out fine. Don’t ruin something that’s not broken. My principle right now is K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple and Smart. It’s worked so far, and I’m happy about it.
Is there anything we haven’t talked about, that you’d like to add?
I just want to thank everybody in Ann Arbor who’ve been our very good patrons on Liberty Street. Main Street is just three and a half blocks away– it’s not far.
I’ve seen many, many changes over the years, especially in restaurants. Probably starting on Fourth all the way to State Street on Liberty – how many restaurants have gone in, from small to large? Even Knight’s is there now! Did you ever imagine that Knight’s would be coming downtown? And all of the Asian influences. Next to me on Liberty is a new place called Ginger Deli. I haven’t had the time to go there, but I really want to do that when Ika comes back, just to see what it’s like.
You know, people are moving. Ali [Ramlawi, owner of Jerusalem Garden] is moving just around the corner to a much larger place [from 307 S. Fifth to 314 E. Liberty, where Seva restaurant was formerly located]. You have Blimpy Burger moving back here [to 304 S. Ashley, next to Fleetwood Diner].
So the Old Guard is on the move! And what’s wrong with that?
Le Dog at 306 S. Main is open weekdays from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.
Update: The staff at the Ann Arbor District Library dug through the archives of the (original) Ann Arbor News, which the library is digitizing, and provided some additional photos. Here are a few – you can view the rest at AADL’s Old News site.
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