These dogs are heart healthy
courtesy photo, Gene Hildreth, right, poses with some of his Hot Dogs With Heart vendors at a summer event.

SaddleBrooke resident Gene Hildreth, an admitted foodie, now has “his restaurant,” wife Gail remarks.

It’s actually a hot dog cart, purchased for $4,500, deployed across greater Tucson to create work experiences and self-esteem for young people who have been dealt a hard hand.

Hildreth created Hot Dogs With Heart because his wife said he’s “got to do something. … It was not ‘sit down and create a business plan and do this.’”

He has a day job, working as a business broker with Rincon Ventures. Hildreth knew he didn’t want to run the cart himself. So he called Youth On Their Own, and asked – “do you have kids who would want to learn how to run a hot dog stand?”

They did. Agencies “thought it was like a blessing,” Hildreth said. “Being involved with them, wow. It’s got me jazzed.”

Agencies such as Youth On Their Own, Our Family Services, Stand Up for Kids and Skrappys are able to recommend responsible young people who are deserving of a chance to operate the Hot Dogs With Heart cart at special events. Hot Dogs With Heart pays the direct costs of vending, to include food and a wage for young vendors. It collects a management fee, then splits what’s left with the youth’s sponsoring group.

“All of the kids we have right now are really good kids,” Hildreth said. “Every one of them has dreams and aspirations.” They long to be cosmetologists, Border Patrol agents, musicians. They’re often top students. But they’ve “lost their childhood,” in one way or another.

Too often, Hildreth said, “employers won’t hire these kids,” because of their availability, lack of transportation, or family histories of drug and alcohol abuse.

“You’d never know it,” Hildreth said. ‘You’d never know it. Every one of them interacts well with people.” Among them, he’s hoping to find an entrepreneur or two, young people who can “see what their personal effort can do.”

Restaurateur Tom Palomares of The Hog Pit is mentoring Hildreth, “bringing his menu into the mix,” broadening the offerings with quality, largely local products. “I’m pretty insistent … that the food is good,” Hildreth said. “It’s great to have Tom’s experience along.”

Organizations that engage Hot Dogs With Heart should “do it for the product and not the kids,” Hildreth said. “We’re putting good product out there. We’re not using the kids to sell an inferior product. Eat good stuff, and we’re helping the kids.”

Americans consume an estimated 20 billion hot dogs per year, about 70 hot dogs per person. “Hot dogs are easy entry,” Hildreth said. “They have great, broad consumer appeal. Hot dog people put a smile on everyone.”

Hot Dogs With Heart vendors are smiling, too. “The kids are happy,” Hildreth said. “They get a pay check, and tips. Working for minimum wage is not a putdown for them.”

Hot Dogs With Heart is “a good thing, and I’ve grown into that,” he said. “The more we can do, the more we can help these kids. It makes me feel good. We are going to grow it.”

For more info

Hot Dogs With Heart employs young people from difficult backdrops to sell hot dogs and other foods at charity, school, church and club functions, sporting events, birthday parties, anniversaries, service club functions, sales events and grand openings, company picnics, shows, conventions, festivals, cultural events, parades, auctions and more.

The web site is

‘Dog-vending youth finds self-worth, responsibility

Because of his work for Hot Dogs With Heart, a 17-year-old youth in transitional housing feels recognized as “a responsible young adult able to contribute,” according to a program director at Youth On Their Own.

“It’s just right for him,” Jayne Song-Gin said of the young man.

Hot Dogs With Heart gives employment opportunities to young people in need. Those same youths are served by organizations such as Youth On Their Own. Two of its young people have been employed by Hot Dogs With Heart and the business’s founder, Gene Hildreth.

“He has enjoyed it tremendously,” Song-Gin said of the young man. “He enjoys working for Gene. He’s being treated quite professionally, and he really appreciates the employment.”

Sometimes, young people living on their own are patronized, or receive “sympathy instead of empathy,” Song-Gin said. “They want to be like everyone else.”

Hot Dogs With Heart gives “something to look forward to,” as well as senses of self-worth, appreciation and responsibility, Song-Gin continued.

Opportunities with Hot Dogs With Heart are posted on the Youth On Their Own bulletin board. “We try to refer as many young people to this job opportunity,” Song-Gin said.

— Dave Perry

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