Former Denver Food Critic Jason Sheehan on Changes at Biker Jim's | Westword

Franks for the Memories: Biker Jim Is Moving On

I knew Jim Pittenger back in the day. And back in the day before the day, too. I was there when he rolled out his first cart on the 16th Street Mall and freaked out the whole city with his elk sausages and ostrich dogs.
"Biker Jim" Pittenger started slinging sausage in Denver in 2005.
"Biker Jim" Pittenger started slinging sausage in Denver in 2005. Biker Jim's/Facebook
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On June 17, Jim Pittenger posted the sad news on Facebook that he was done with Biker Jim's. From across the country, former Westword food critic Jason Sheehan weighed in:

“Look,” he says to me, “I’m not in the wiener business not to have the jokes.”

We’ve been on the phone two minutes, Biker Jim and me, and both of us are already laughing. We haven’t talked in ten years. Maybe fifteen. I don’t know. Too fucking long is exactly how long it’s been. But we pick up like it was just last week. Like everything that has happened to him and to me between when I left Denver and when I heard that Jim was packing it in, getting out of the wiener game for good (or out of the Biker Jim’s game, anyway) was just one really long weekend, and now we’re catching up.

I knew Jim Pittenger back in the day. And back in the day before the day, too. I was there when he rolled out his first cart near Skyline Park on the 16th Street Mall and freaked out the whole city with his elk sausages and ostrich dogs. I was a regular customer, scarfing down rabbit and rattlesnake and Louisiana red hots when he was cash-only, loud and servicing lines that stretched down the block.

“We were such a band of pirates,” Jim says, and he’s right. Those were pirate days in Denver’s food scene — made for outlaws and oddballs who set out to challenge the prevailing notion that dining and eating had to be two different things.
In that moment (somewhere just short of twenty years ago), Denver was trying so hard to be serious — about food, about restaurants, about itself — that it had forgotten how to have fun. Not completely, of course. There were still places a fella could find a good time if he went looking. But there was this overarching sense that in order to be taken seriously as a food city, one had to actually be serious. And while seriousness might be fine in moderation — even necessary on occasion — it can also be anathema to the kind of wild talent that the restaurant industry, at its best, exists to nurture.

And Jim was exactly that: an apostle of outlaw sensibilities and tube-shaped meats, whose arrival on the scene in 2005 served to remind people that sometimes the best meals out there are the ones you eat standing up. He was part of a street food awakening in Denver, his chrome-on-chrome hot dog cart a vanguard of un-seriousness that cut the trail for a hundred harlequin weirdos that followed merrily behind him.
click to enlarge a sausage in a bun with various toppings
Biker Jim's dogs are a culinary staple in Denver.
Molly Martin
And okay, that’s done now. That was probably done a long time ago. But talking about those days is why we're on the phone now — me at my desk in Philly, Jim in a Lowe's parking lot in Denver. I want to know what happened. What went wrong at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs that caused Jim to announce in a Facebook post that he’s walking away from a business that he says he spent the last third of his life building and loving.

“Biker Jim’s is broke,” he tells me. “My retirement program is just fucking dead.” He explains how, for seventeen years, he never missed a vendor payment, a rent payment, a payroll. “Nobody didn’t get paid,” he says. “Now? Fuuuuuck…”

It was one bad business deal that led to this. A lifeline from a friend he thought he could trust during the worst days of the pandemic. At the time, it looked like a life preserver when he was five minutes from drowning. It ended up being a lead weight.

“Two thousand twenty,” he says, then pauses, and you can almost feel the shudder in him. Like some cold, bad memory climbing up his spine. “In 2020, we were breathing fumes.” Shutdowns, 25 percent occupancy restrictions, empty streets — all of it was killing him. He’d burned through all of his emergency money, then all of his savings, too. Like everyone else in the restaurant industry, he’d found himself in a hole that there was no good way out of.

So he took a chance. He signed over Biker Jim’s to a guy who claimed to have millions of dollars and who made millions of promises and, as it turned out, was lying about both. It went bad slowly at first, then got worse all at once. Jim had spent seventeen years building something that was hollowed out, gutted and run into the ground in two. The kind of nosedive that makes headlines. That makes old friends call just to find out what the fuck went wrong.
two men posing together
Anthony Bourdain was famously not a fan of Denver until a trip during which he met Biker Jim.
Courtesy Biker Jim
“I had delusions of adequacy,” Jim says, laughing. “We had a good time. I sold a lot of hot dogs.” He made it to Coors Field and to Red Rocks, opened an actual restaurant on Larimer Street, fed Anthony Bourdain and likely turned Tony around on the city as a whole. He was on the TV more times than I can count, and even made it all the way to the James Beard House, serving polenta in hollowed-out marrow bones to all the big-city swells. It was an epic run for a guy who started off with nothing more than long hair, a hot dog cart and a dream. But now?

“It isn’t the same,” Jim tells me. He doesn’t like the way his staff has been treated, the way his vendors and partners have been treated. He doesn’t like the way any of this has turned out. “It doesn’t even look like Jim’s anymore. So I’m like, 'Fuck y’all. I’m outta here.'”

The longer I do this job and the more people I talk to, the more it becomes apparent to me that the pandemic is going to persist in restaurant ghost stories for generations. It’s like there’s forever going to be this scar in the industry’s collective memory, and things will be divided into what happened before COVID and then everything that happened after.

Biker Jim’s, to me, will always be a before-COVID story. Jim himself will always be the guy who saw his moment and seized it, ran with it, drove it like it was stolen for as long as he possibly could, and took everyone who loved the place along for the ride. And for an hour, that’s what we talk about — summer days and ayahuasca weekends, stolen recipes, reindeer dogs and Tony Bourdain.

“More than anything, I love feeding people,” he says. And the good news in all of this (if there’s any at all) is that Biker Jim Pittenger probably isn’t done doing that just yet. The Biker Jim’s we all knew may be just a shadow of its pre-pandemic self, but Jim isn’t. He’s older now, but so are we all. Different, but so are we all. He started in this game as an outlaw, and he’s still got an outlaw’s heart, beating hard, so he figures that if he managed to build something from nothing once, maybe he can do it again — out on the streets, slinging dogs, just like the good old days.

Second acts can be tricky. I don’t know the 303 well enough anymore to know if there’s space for that kind of thing these days, but I really want to believe that there is. On the Mount Rushmore of Denver’s culinary history, there are many enormous heads, many names that deserve to be remembered. And all I’m hoping is that someday, somewhere down below that towering monument, I’ll be able to pull up and see Jim Pittenger in the parking lot, giving everyone the finger.
And selling hot dogs to all the tourists.
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