How does a Miami restaurant become an institution?
The odds are against this. Besides the elements and the constant struggle of building a business, restaurant owners must contend with fickle populations who remake Miami every decade or so as well as breakneck development. The two key elements to making this happen, it seems, are obsession and luck.
Robert Arbetter was both obsessed and lucky when he shirked off his family’s urging to pursue medicine or law and re-created an iconic Boston hot dog joint called Joe & Nemo’s, where his father had taken him before Red Sox games in the early 20th century.
This July 4 marks the crayon-red-and-yellow spot’s 60th anniversary, making it the perfect time to pop in for a quick chili onion dog ($2.59) and a reminder of why it’s something special.
You can still get a hot dog at Arbetter’s the way Robert ate them as a kid. Ask for an All Around. It costs $2.39 and comes with mustard, onion, and sweet relish. The heart of this dish is a hot dog weighing in at a quarter to a half pound, made either with all beef or the place's longstanding custom recipe of pork and beef.
If you haven’t been here in a while, it’s OK. Miami is a city of flash, and sometimes one gets distracted.
Michael Murphy, a 68-year-old general contractor, though, is a regular, On a recent weekday afternoon he arrived with his 40-year-old daughter, Yajaira Mederos, and lined up alongside the counter — which was recently revamped with Ahol Sniffs Glue’s signature droopy eyes — to order two All Arounds for lunch as he’s done for the past four decades.
“There used to be places like this all along Bird Road, but they’re gone now,” Murphy says. “This was something special even when we were kids.”
Arbetter’s signature chili, a wonderland of juicy meat enveloped in a slightly tangy, slightly sweet sauce, and puffy steamed buns weren’t always served out of this location.
After moving to the area to play baseball at the University of Miami and being drafted into the Korean War, Robert Arbetter returned to build the hot dog joint of his dreams. The first location opened in 1959 at 1880 W. Flagler St. Every day Arbetter's wife, Flaminia, would cook up a vat of chili — Italian chili as they call it — and shuttle it eastward on a bus.
“My dad was obsessed with hot dogs, obsessed with opening up a hot dog stand and taking care of people, but the funny thing was he didn’t know how to cook,” his son Dave Arbetter, 55, laughs.
Robert stayed at that location, crowned with a sign that read “Arbetter’s the Hot Dog King,” until 1962 before relocating to a new spot at 9000 Bird Road. They were there for a year before moving again, this time to a shared location with a Dairy Queen. When a landlord jealous of how much business Arbetter was doing pulled the rug out from under them to open his own stand, they moved to this fourth and final location in 1970.
What remained constant was Arbetter’s love of hot dogs, his customers, and his family.
“My parents always told us to work hard, be honest, and treat your customers like gold. Those three principles are the foundation upon which Arbetter’s was built,” Dave says.
Even secured in their current location, things were far from settled. The family began looking into expanding, first into Tampa, then North Miami, Hialeah, and Cocoa, where one Arbetter’s remains open.
In 1980, Robert and Flaminia Arbetter decided they’d lived their dream and sold the whole company. Yet nine years later, as Arbetter’s faltered under new ownership, Robert decided he couldn’t watch the place sit decaying and dormant. A year later, a heart attack forced him to ask a longtime employee to take the reins. Eventually, Robert began handing the business over to his sons, Ronnie and Dave, who’d worked there throughout their teens. Ronnie took over in 2003, but passed in 2008 from pancreatic cancer. Dave, who’d long ago decamped to the West Coast, felt an otherworldly pull to return to Miami to keep his family legacy alive.
“It’s the most egalitarian place in the world,” Dave says. “You could have the mayor talking with a homeless guy and they’re all ordering hot dogs. The hot dog ties everyone together.”
As the business degree holder in the family, Dave spends 100 hours a week at or thinking about Arbetter’s.
“He’s literally always here,” says one fry cook.
Dave has slowly made changes to the menu, adding creations like the New York Dog ($3.99) with a tangy red onion sauce atop a Sabrett with sauerkraut and mustard, as well as a Miami Dog ($3.99) with mustard, onion, cheese, tomatoes, and potato sticks.
He’s festooned the place with pictures of the Arbetter family posing with local celebrities, politicians, and Boston sports luminaries, while the bathroom is papered with University of Miami sports teams and a Larry King mugshot from his 1971 arrest in Miami.
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There have been kitchen changes too. New equipment was brought in. Older but still viable equipment was refurbished. Everything was placed on wheels and the place now gets a weekly power wash, Dave says proudly.
The idea is to keep Arbetter’s going for another 60 years. And while Dave is looking at expansion outside the original location, it seems there’s already a succession plan in place.
“I have a sister and we have kids,” he says. “If something happens, one of them will step in. There will always be an Arbetter at Arbetter’s.”
Arbetter’s. 8747 Bird Rd., Miami; 305-207-0555; arbetterhotdogs.com.