The tall stack of bright yellow cards sat waiting at my desk.
It had been nearly two years since I’d worked from our downtown St. Petersburg office. In the interim, I had missed a few postcards and letters. But this was something else: This was a lot of mail.
The cards all came from the same place: Bruce’s Chicago Grill & Dog House, a Largo restaurant I had never been to — or heard of — before. All of the cards were addressed to me.
Dear Helen, they started.
I am dropping this postcard in the mail to let you know how I feel about Bruce’s Chicago Grill & Dog House. This card was supplied to me by the restaurant, but the opinions are entirely mine. If I have included a day time phone number, please feel free to call and confirm that I am really a satisfied customer rather than a friend of the owner.
Most people left their phone numbers.
A comment section followed, where diners had written in all the possible reasons why I should visit the restaurant, including the staff, owner, ambiance and favorite dishes. (The Chicago dog ranked highest, followed by the Italian beef.)
“We love this place!!” Nicole S. wrote.
“Hot dogs rule,” said Jerry Hotho.
“Great service, great staff — best hot dog place EVER!!!” wrote Michael M.
Kevin Van Portfliet recalled how he had been coming to the restaurant since he was a child. Bill Bogaard commented on how friendly the employees were. Chase, “age 8,” said he enjoyed the “cheese dog and fries,” as well as the “stuff on the walls.”
Clearly, this place had a following.
Over the next few weeks, the cards kept coming.
“Owner cares. It shows. Love it.,” wrote Stephen Smith.
“The world can use more gems like this,” said Kris Lucas.
By my last count, I had received 223.
Then, one morning, an email arrived from Bruce Karlin, the owner of the restaurant. Karlin wondered if I had received the postcards. He didn’t know how else to reach me, he said. And then he shared his story, which included a traumatic brain infection, a five-week coma followed by months of recovery, dipping sales caused by the pandemic and a restaurant manager that had recently died of a heart attack. Would I please consider coming to his restaurant?
I receive a lot of requests for coverage from restaurants, including emails from publicists and media invites to openings. A lot of them tout new menu additions or chef shuffles, things that don’t often warrant immediate action or feel newsy enough for a story.
But this got my attention. I had to meet the man behind the yellow postcards.
As it turns out, Karlin has a real knack for tracking down Tampa Bay Times food critics.
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In 2010, he kicked off a similar campaign addressed to my predecessor, Laura Reiley. And when she went to review the restaurant, she noticed that the food critic before her — Chris Sherman — had also reviewed the restaurant 10 years earlier, after receiving similar customer testimonials. That’s a campaign strategy decades in the making.
And apparently, it’s one that works.
Of course, when I sat down with Karlin, he mentioned nothing about it.
I went on a Monday afternoon, right around lunchtime. There was a line out the door.
From his perch behind the register, Karlin was ringing up customers. He shouted goodbye to every single person as they shuffled out the door.
“Thank you, folks! I hope you enjoyed it,” he said.
“Everything OK? Hope you have a great day!”
Bruce’s Chicago Grill & Dog House sits inside a strip mall on the corner of Ulmerton Road and S Belcher Road in Largo. It’s the kind of place that transports you to another place and time with bright, bold colors and a heavy hand of nostalgia.
Red leather booths line faux brick walls, and tables are covered with checkered tablecloths. Walls are plastered in Chicago memorabilia (most of which was gifted to Karlin from customers), including sports paraphernalia for the Chicago White Sox, Cubs, Bears and Bulls; street signs with Chicago neighborhood designations and landmarks; bright yellow Vienna Beef signs; and Illinois license plates.
People come for the natural casing hot dogs (Karlin sources both Vienna Beef and Red Hot Chicago), with mustard (never ketchup) and relish, lots of onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot sport peppers and celery salt. They come for the hefty Polish sausage and the massive Italian beef sandwich, marinated in gravy, served on a French roll topped with sweet peppers and sauteed onions.
But, as the comment cards attest, they also come for Karlin.
When he finally got a break and sat down with me, Karlin wanted to make one thing clear: He didn’t want this article to be about him. I told Karlin I wasn’t so sure — he seemed like a big part of the story.
“I just want people to know we have really great food,” he replied.
Karlin grew up in Winnetka, Ill., a community roughly 16 miles north of downtown Chicago. In 1994, he moved to the Tampa Bay area — he had some family nearby and the warmer climate beckoned. After noticing a dearth in the local culinary landscape (“it was a barren wasteland for good restaurants”), Karlin decided to open his own spot.
Over the years, Karlin amassed a solid following and loyal customer base. The restaurant grew from a small shop of four rickety wooden tables to an expanded eatery with 100 seats. As with any business, there were highs and lows. The year 2008 was tough. Some years later, he had issues with employees suffering from substance abuse problems. And then there was the coronavirus pandemic.
The biggest hurdle came in September 2020, when Karlin suffered four major brain infections at once and fell into a coma for five weeks. He spent several months at an assisted living facility relearning basic skills before he was able to go back home.
“It was like having a stroke in the sense that I had to relearn everything all over again, including how to walk,” Karlin said.
The restaurant shuttered for nine months while Karlin recovered. When he did reopen, he didn’t feel well enough to run the restaurant on his own and hired a local couple to help oversee the business. Things were starting to pick back up when Karlin said the man he hired to oversee the business died of a heart attack.
That was this past January. Karlin, now 74, had no choice but to come back to work.
When he reopened the restaurant, the combined effects of the pandemic and being closed for so long had taken a toll. The once-packed dining room felt empty. Sales were down, by a lot.
So Karlin decided to ask his customers for help, once again. He printed out hundreds of bright yellow comment cards, and addressed them to me. He was humbled by the number of diners who filled out the cards, and touched by the kind comments and testimonials.
“One of the greatest rewards of this place is that I’ve developed friendships across the cash register that have expanded outside the restaurant,” he said. “It gives me a great deal of happiness.”
Karlin never married or had children, but he considers his staff his family. “They take care of me,” he said of his employees. “I would be nowhere without these people — they saved me.”
Karlin doesn’t seem like the type of man who worries too much.
Since his illness, dates and timelines can still confuse him. He has some difficulty with his left arm and leg. But mostly, he’s just happy to be back at work, doing the thing he loves the most.
When you spend five weeks in a coma, you don’t sweat the small stuff.
But Karlin does worry about Portillo’s, the Chicago-based restaurant chain set to open a new location in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg later this spring.
“All my customers tell me, ‘Don’t worry about Portillo’s,’” he said. “I’m fully aware that it’s going to take business away from me.”
Karlin believes his customers have stayed loyal because of the food. I think it’s more than that.
I think it’s about the community Karlin has created, and the incredible sense of place and feeling of belonging he fosters for everyone who walks through the door.
His customers seem to agree.
“If you are from Chicago,” a diner who signed their name as “Aleda” wrote, “it takes you home.”
7733 Ulmerton Road, Largo. 727-408-5525.
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