Sep 14, 2023 - Food and Drink

The Happy Hound overcomes setbacks to serve New York-style dogs and kindness on The Plaza

Happy Hound hot dog charlotte the plaza

Each of us is dealt a different hand in life. It’s how we respond that matters.

Thomas Neelon, 67, is one of those people who chooses kindness. On the Plaza, he’s a neighborhood staple, known for selling hot dogs and sausages from a cart adorned with rainbow tie-dye and hippy flowers. You probably wouldn’t know the luck he’s had — particularly, in the last year.

Driving the news: Earlier this summer, Neelon, who is legally blind and can’t drive, rolled his wagon of coleslaw, cheese and other cold toppings to his usual spot in front of Hattie’s Tap & Tavern.

When he showed up, his hot dog cart was gone.

  • “I was, just, broken,” he remembers.

Surveillance videos showed a man hauling the cart away around 4:45am. It hasn’t been found.

It’s a hot September day, and Neelon is sitting in his fold-up chair as the lunch rush dies down. For the past few months, I’ve seen Neelon walking with his cane and rolling his wagon down the Plaza. Then I saw his cart was stolen on the news.

  • But Neelon’s 70s-themed cart first caught my attention outside the Wells Fargo in Plaza Midwood, near a high-foot-traffic intersection. Then one day he was gone. After the bank’s head of security came by the branch, Neelon says police banned him from the property and threatened him with trespassing in August 2022.

Yes, but: Neelon is back up and running outside Hattie’s. His grilled hot dogs are New York-style. His sausage, peppers and onions are homemade. He’ll grill you up a hamburger, and throw in a drink and chips for $1.

  • He thought about quitting after his cart was stolen. His family encouraged him to look for another job, perhaps at the library. But he still had $1,000 worth of product, so he searched online for another cart. Then he got a call from Jackie DeLoach, the owner of Hattie’s. She told him they had a fundraiser up and running to buy a replacement.
  • They raised nearly $6,000 in one day.

Last week Hattie’s and Neelon thanked the community by giving away 120 to 150 free hot dogs, Neelon says. Many stopped by to strike conversation and welcome him back.

Backstory: Hot dogs just made sense. Neelon grew up in Cleveland, where he later owned and operated bars and restaurants. He’s spent time in New York, where there’s a hot dog cart on every corner. Several years ago, he moved to Charlotte after he was laid off from a job working on highways. On his last day, a car smashed into his truck and sent him “flying” down a hill.

Happy Hound hot dog
All the fixings. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios
  • Six years ago, he lost his 35-year-old son. Neelon remembers going stir-crazy not working after that. He describes himself as a “workaholic” with “ants in his pants.”
  • “I was just sitting at home, and I was going nuts,” he said.
  • So his daughter recommended he apply to work in a cafeteria for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Between the long walk and the low wage, it wasn’t worth it. In March 2022 he opened The Happy Hound instead.

The intrigue: The tie-dye is what he’s known for. It’s easy to spot. But that wasn’t his goal.

  • “I’m just stuck in the 70s,” he says. “I just loved the music and the peace.”

What they’re saying: As journalists tend to do, I hit him with one more open-ended question before I left with my aluminum-wrapped hot dog in hand: “Is there anything else you want people to know?” His message: “Be kind.”

  • Neelon hopes to one day set up his cart at homeless encampments and serve free dogs. Occasionally, he’ll give away a hot meal to a person or family down on their luck.
  • The favor isn’t always reciprocated. He recently caught one guy he regularly serves for free sifting through his coolers on his front porch. “I can be stern when I have to be,” he tells me.

Neelon put the man on a suspension from free hot dogs. For how long? 10 days.

Details: You’ll find Neelon at Hattie’s most days of the week from around 11am to 3pm. He closes Tuesday and Wednesday at 2pm to babysit his grandchildren. You can also occasionally find him at events and fundraisers.

  • Pay with cash or via Venmo, Cash App or Square.

The business isn’t as good as it is once in his old spot on Plaza Midwood, but, he says, “I’m not looking to get rich off this.”

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