Sean Draper starts off each morning with a hot dog.
"Quality control" he calls it.
It's part of the job when you have a hot dog cart.
Southwest Desert Dogs is coming up on five years and closing in on 100,000 tube steaks sold. But, as Sean's wife, Toni, points out, "That doesn't count how much he's eaten."
While south-side stands tend to hog all the attention with their Sonoran-style dogs, the Drapers have been quietly doing their thing off the beaten path at 5214 E. Pima St., tucked amid businesses, many of them shut down, and chunks of duplexes and apartments. With its twin, yellow tarps tenting the cart and a small patio, Southwest Desert Dogs is easy to spot.
If your car windows are rolled down, you'll definitely catch the unmistakable, smoky whiff of bacon and onions.
Toni, 44, and Sean - he says 41, but she says 40 and Sean admits he's lost track - come from management backgrounds. Insurance for her, a rental-car agency for him. They were both tired of the grind and wanted flexibility since they have three kids, ages 7, 11 and 18.
"When we were going to work in suits; we were making more money, but there's a trade-off," Sean says. "I'd have to work Saturdays and miss games. I would rather make $25, $30,000 less and be there for my kids."
Owning a business, the Drapers decided, was the way to go. But, they didn't want one that cost a lot or required hefty loans. A hot dog cart was just the ticket. At first, they catered and set up in bar parking lots. They quickly decided that wasn't for them. When they happened upon the small space along Pima, they loved it.
An American flag flies next to the sidewalk, where a smattering of aloe vera plants grows. A patch of well-worn, green turf covers the ground in front of the hot dog cart.
"That's our whole sales pitch," Sean jokes. "We have grass!"
Four tables are arranged on a wooden deck, each topped with a basket of paper napkins and a National Geographic magazine. There's a basketball hoop at the back of the patio - just ask Sean for the ball. Sports posters that Sean made through his other business, Elite Level Graphics, decorate the window of the small brick building where the Drapers sneak some TV (sports for him, "General Hospital" for her) when things are slow.
"I don't even call this a small business - I call this a molecular business, it's so small," says Sean, who sells about six dozen hot dogs a day.
Early on, their friends told them they were crazy.
"We're not quitters," Toni says. "People said from Day One, 'What are you going to do if it doesn't work?' You make it work. Life is always going to throw you curveballs."
Those who know Southwest Desert Dogs exists are a loyal lot, some even arriving promptly at 10 a.m. when it opens.
Customers are doctors, nurses and lawyers from nearby offices, and students from Catalina Magnet High School down the road. Plenty of regulars come from the couple's church, Desert Skies United Methodist. Today, fellow parishioners Pam Vondrak and Jane Denham arrive at 10:30 on the dot for breakfast.
"I don't even like hot dogs," says Vondrak, who makes a point of coming once a month. "But their Chicago dog is delicious."
That's a top seller, the Chicago, which features an all-beef hot dog - the Drapers use Nathan's or Hebrew National - snuggled inside a soft, fresh-baked bun, imported from the south side, along with tomato slices, pickle, onion, mustard, relish, peppers and a sprinkle of celery salt. That'll set ya back $3. As will the Coney Island, which features mustard, onion and that famous meaty, cumin-spiked Coney sauce, Toni's mom's recipe. The priciest thing on the menu is the Polish Sonoran, at $4. It's a jumbo-sized quarter-pounder loaded with all the fixings - beans, bacon, onion, house-made salsa and jalapeño sauce, along with mayo and mustard. A true south-side Sonoran will have the bacon wrapped around the dog, but the Drapers say their way - crisp, diced bacon that gets a quick sauté with fresh-cut onions and then heaped on top of the dog - is better.
"I'm wanting to do a throw-down," says Sean, who handles the actual cooking while Toni takes orders, dresses the hot dogs and gets drinks.
His dog would definitely do well in a fight: The frank, which is boiled and then cooked to order, is juicy and has that unmistakable snap when you chomp into it. Thanks to the copious amounts of bacon, it has a smoky bite. The fresh onions are strong and slightly sweet, the homemade pinto beans soft. The salsa and jalapeño sauce add hints of heat that play well with the vinegary mustard and creamy mayo. And then there's that pillowy bun. Soft and light, it's warm, thanks to a quick nuke in the microwave, a little trick that's spoiled their kids. Toni says when their youngest was 4, he politely refused a Costco hot dog sample because the bun was cold.
All day long, cars honk and the Drapers wave. They chat up everyone who stops. Sean talks sports and Toni hits just about every other topic. When Aajay Karim, a recent Catalina grad who's been a customer for years, rolls up in his truck for his usual (bacon, cheese and jalapeño on a dog) before heading into work, Toni reminds him again about the plan for college to study mechanics.
"He comes here for the lectures," she says.
Funny story - when Karim and his buddies were still in high school, they'd heckle the Drapers on a daily basis as they zoomed past, yelling at them through a loudspeaker, "Hot dogs! Hot dogs! Hot dogs!"
It was supremely annoying, Toni says, especially since they didn't even understand what the boys were shouting. Then one day the teens started eating at Desert Dogs.
"We fell in love with them," Toni says. "They just ended up being the best kids."
They've got plenty of stories like that.
There was the bus driver who pulled over to grab a hot dog one day - as his passengers watched from inside. Then there was the guy, down on his luck, who admitted he hadn't eaten in three days. They gave him a hot dog and some extra food. Two months later, he came back. He'd gotten a job, turned things around and wanted to pay them back.
Unless the weather's pouring-buckets bad, the Drapers are out cooking. During last year's cold snap, they manned their cart wearing snowsuits.
They might skip out a little early to catch one of their son's football games or take an extra day around the holidays, but otherwise "we're committed to being open," Sean says. "There's not a lot of profit in the hot dog business. You've got to sell a lot of hot dogs."
They haven't raised their prices in years, and when all is said and done - with the trips for supplies and morning prep work at a nearby restaurant - the Drapers end up pulling nearly 12-hour days.
"We're blessed in a lot of other ways," Sean says. "The people we know are our blessings. It's pretty cool."
Southwest Desert Dogs
5214 E. Pima St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
You can call in or text an order to 388-0125.
Contact Kristen Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4194.