What will happen to Biker Jim’s without Biker Jim?

Jim Pittenger pulled up to Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs on his 10-year-old Harley Davidson last Tuesday, parked and walked through the front door. But instead of the usual exchange of greetings with employees, he said he felt “like a stranger in his own home.”

Two weeks earlier, the 66-year-old announced on Facebook that he was stepping down from the hot dog business he started in 2005 because of a dispute with the man he sold it to. “I can no longer watch how our crew, our vendors, customers, landlords and pretty much everyone that brought this place together have been treated,” he wrote.

These days, he told The Denver Post, he barely recognizes the operation, which started out as a humble cart serving rattlesnake and reindeer dogs just off the 16th Street Mall. “At least my ideas fueled that place,” he said.

“Now, it just kind of reminds me of a Western TV show. It looks like the real thing, but if you look behind the walls, you just see an empty space,” he added.

After relinquishing control of Biker Jim’s to a former friend during the pandemic, Pittenger said the issues that followed, including a lawsuit against the company for unpaid fees at Ball Arena, felt like “watching a car crash in slow motion.”

Anthony Bourdain once proclaimed he “had reached the mountaintop” after visiting Biker Jim’s food cart in 2009. (Provided by Jim Pittenger)

For Pittenger, It seems like just yesterday that Anthony Bourdain proclaimed his love for Biker Jim’s. The late chef and TV personality visited the Mile High City in 2009 to film an episode of “No Reservations,” and when then-Mayor John Hickenlooper presented him with a fork to the city, Bourdain explained that he’d previously described Denver as a “culinary wasteland.”

“But I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I have been enlightened,” Bourdain continued before unbuttoning his jacket to reveal a Biker Jim’s T-shirt.

Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” show twice over the years. (Provided by Jim Pittenger)

Two years later, Pittenger opened the Larimer Street restaurant and he continued to garner praise, feeding Susan Feniger an elk jalapeño cheddar bratwurst with Coca-Cola-braised onions and cream cheese on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and keeping it weird for “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman.” Most recently, Biker Jim’s got a shoutout on Netflix’s “Fresh, Fried & Crispy” series in 2021.

Pittenger has left those glory days in his Harley’s rearview mirror, though, and he’s skeptical of how the company will do without its heart and soul.

“It’s hard to be Biker Jim’s without Biker Jim,” Pittenger said.

From friends to foes

Pittenger met Andrew Soulakis, the current CEO of Biker Jim’s, nearly 15 years ago. Biker Jim’s had just appeared on “Ludo Bites America” a TV show with chef Ludo Lefebvre. Soulakis worked for Lefebvre’s food truck business and he and Pittenger became friends and kept in touch over the years, even trying to create a food truck project that “never panned out,” Pittenger said.

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In 2019, Soulakis started an eco-friendly fuel additive company in California called Environmental Applied Technology Corporation (EATC), which pivoted to hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment during the pandemic. “We’d always talked about partnering up, and his company was doing really well, while I was broke, so it seemed like a no-brainer at the time,” Pittenger said, adding that the effects of the pandemic had left him struggling to make ends meet.

So Pittenger traded 99% of his stake in Biker Jim’s for 250,000 shares in EATC — a decision he now calls “naive.”

Soulakis confirmed the deal with The Denver Post and said EATC’s primary focus is currently Biker Jim’s. He declined to discuss the details of the disagreement with Pittenger, however.

Soulakis, in turn, became CEO of the hot dog company, and Pittenger became an employee with “a nice six-figure income and health insurance,” Pittenger said. The partnership started off as promised. Soulakis started a local retail program and got Biker Jim’s dogs into local King Soopers grocery stores, intending to eventually expand nationwide.

But in 2022, about a year into Soulakis’ control, Pittenger said his paychecks began appearing inconsistently. Other employees shared the same concern. “From all indications, he did not know how to balance a checkbook,” Pittenger said.

Laura Greer, who had worked for Biker Jim’s since it was a food cart, said she stopped receiving paystubs with her checks when Soulakis took over. She’d worked in every role at the business from dishwasher to server and manager on duty, whatever they needed. “For months, I was asking for paystubs, since I had no idea if my taxes were being paid or if I was receiving any of the tips as promised,” she said. “It was getting ridiculous.” As a result, Greer, who currently works as an accountant, quit last summer.

“On top of not knowing what I was actually being paid, I got fed up with the fact that scheduling was a hot mess; they were changing Jim’s recipes and putting out subpar product; they were cutting corners wherever they could; and there was just an overall lack of passion and care,” Greer said.

Vendors were also receiving late payments, according to Pittenger. To the point where Denver-based Continental Sausage, which Pittenger had worked with for 20-plus years, no longer sells its products to Biker Jim’s. Continental Sausage owner Eric Gutknecht declined to discuss the details of this decision, but said it was due to the recent ownership changes at Biker Jim’s.

“For the 20 years I was in charge, we were never late on one payroll,” Pittenger asserted. “We never missed a rent payment. Our vendors loved us. You know, anything we needed, they were always there for us.”

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The final straw for Pittenger was when he saw a letter from Kroenke Sports & Entertainment in Biker Jim’s mailbox earlier this summer. Unbeknownst to him, Soulakis had signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the company, which owns Ball Arena, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and other teams.

But Kroenke alleged in an $868,000 lawsuit that Biker Jim’s had failed to pay fees as promised. “Despite repeated demand, and despite taking advantage of the benefits provided by the sponsorship agreement, Biker Jim’s refuses to pay,” the original complaint stated. Biker Jim’s was then booted out of the stadium.

Soulakis declined to comment on the ongoing litigation but noted that the parties are trying to reach an “amicable resolution.”

“You own an oil company when you’re signing a $250,000-a-year sponsorship,” Pittenger scoffed. “I mean that year at Ball, we might have made $40,000, and we had to sell Pit Beef sandwiches, instead of Biker Jim’s dogs because there was already a sausage guy in there that had a contract.”

Pittenger said he held on as long as his pride could handle it but ultimately decided to walk away. “I gave away a million-dollar business and 20 years of my life for false promises and lies,” he texted Soulakis in his letter of resignation, which went unanswered.

He considered hiring an attorney and fighting to regain the business, but after months without a consistent paycheck, “I was struggling to even pay rent,” Pittenger said.

“It was either sell my Harley, or ride off into the sunset, and I choose the latter every time,” he added.

Showing up and showing off?

Soulakis told The Denver Post that he isn’t “entertaining the more salacious aspects of any of this,” and he wishes Pittenger well.

“I’m not interested in getting into any sort of he-said-she-said. Jim has his reasons for wanting to step away, and we respect Jim’s decision to do that. We’re really focused on making sure Biker Jim’s continues to move forward and we deliver to our customers the same great experience, just up an extra notch,” Soulakis said.

Amy Brothers, The Denver Post

Biker Jim’s reindeer dog, a look at ballpark food at the Rockies’ Coors field on July 3, 2017, in Denver. (Photo by Amy Brothers/ The Denver Post)

As it stands now, Biker Jim’s has kiosks at Coors Field, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Empower Field at Mile High, as well as the restaurant at 2148 Larimer St. But that location is only open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and when the Colorado Rockies are playing at Coors Field.

In addition, the menu no longer boasts Biker Jim’s wilder flavors like alligator, pheasant or rabbit dogs, and instead features traditional options like a craft beer brat and a stadium dog. Soulakis said he revamped the menu to give it more of “a culinary edge” with rotating sandwich specials. (You can still get a Biker Jim’s ostrich, elk, duck and bison dog at King Soopers, though.)

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Soulakis’ next goal is to expand the retail program nationwide into large grocers like Costco, and eventually open up more brick-and-mortar shops. “We have no intention of going anywhere,” he said. “Biker Jim’s is an amazing brand, and we’re excited to show up and show off.”

Pittenger and Greer are skeptical about Biker Jim’s future sustainability, however, given the limited hours and their feelings about product quality.

“Especially if this Kroenke thing goes through, it would take more than $1 million just to bring the company back to zero,” Pittenger said.  “I don’t see how they’re going to be able to pull themselves out of this financial burden.”

Jim Pittenger poses for a portrait with his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in front of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs restaurant in Denver on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A legacy in the rearview mirror

Pittenger is no stranger to starting over. He previously worked as a repo man in Anchorage, Alaska, where he met a guy selling reindeer dogs, who inspired him to start Biker Jim’s in Denver at 48 years old. “I had used up most of the luck one might have repo-ing cars,” he said.

Even at the height of his success, though, Pittenger and his signature gray ponytail, remained the same person. “Those first three years, it was just me and a cart, yet I was still somehow rated No. 1 on Yelp because I stayed true to myself,” he said.

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Which is why he doesn’t plan to wallow in his loss. “I understand the graciousness and the care that goes into being fed and to feeding someone,” said Pittenger, who ran away from home at age 14. And he won’t let this experience detract from his future with food.

He’s been using his free time to bake a variety of cheesecakes, which he hopes could eventually turn into a full-time gig dubbed Bikers & Bakers. And he’s also working on a motorcycle-inspired cookbook with recipes from the road.

“You either get back on the bike or stay idle,” he said.

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