The story of Pudgee’s American Eatery is a story of perseverance.
Even though its owner, John Sterling, served his last Pudgee’s hot dog and locked the front door of his Floral City business for the last time on Saturday, July 23, Sterling fought the good fight and is ready for his next chapter.
“It was time,” Sterling said Monday, Aug. 1, in a phone interview. “My house and vehicles are all paid for, and I have a camper we’ve never used and a granddaughter who’s never been camping or fishing.
“So it’s time to do fun, grandpa stuff,” he said.
That’s not to say saying goodbye to his faithful customers from over the past 23 years was easy.
“We’ve had incredibly great customers who stayed with us through everything,” Sterling said.
In the past two years, Sterling has had COVID three times, lost about a dozen employees at the beginning of the pandemic when he had to close for a month and they didn’t return, and he lost his 32-year-old daughter to Hodgkin’s Disease.
“That was the hardest,” he said.
Just prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Sterling was set to open a second Pudgee’s in Brooksville.
“I invested a lot into that place, and we were set to open,” he said. “We had our final inspection and they said we had to redo the hood and part of the roof – $76,000.
“We pulled the plug before that restaurant could open because we couldn’t find anybody to put on a new hood,” he said. “We just kept getting punched in the face.”
Sterling had experienced “getting punched” before when Pudgee’s was a simple roadside stand on U.S. 41 in Floral City.
The self-described “hometown boy” and Citrus High School Class of 1979 graduate “who gave the county its first original hot dog stand,” as he told the Chronicle in 2011, opened his stand in 2001.
Prior to that, he drove a gas tanker truck for 26 years and lived in Ohio for 10 of those years.
His job on the road took him all over the country, where he sampled lots of good food.
When he returned to Citrus County, he opened Pudgee’s All American Hot Dogs as a roadside dining attraction.
It was a small trailer with just enough room for a cook or two, and several tables outside under a canopy. The colorful trailer was plastered with signs, cartoons and whimsical photos all about hot dogs.
In December 2012, after more than a decade in business, Pudgee’s failed a fire inspection and the cost to bring his trailer up to code would’ve been more than the trailer was worth, Sterling said at that time.
“I’ve had inspectors, code enforcers, food inspectors, everyone inside this place,” he had told the Chronicle. “No one has ever raised any flags of any sort, because we never had any issues. We’ve never tried to be above the law.”
Sterling announced he would be closing Dec. 29, 2012, but after an outpouring of support from his customers and the community, Sterling was able to comply with the code and his business was saved.
Five years later, Pudgee’s roadside stand closed in December 2017 and reopened March 3, 2018, in the then-newly built Stagecoach Square – just blocks from his old stand on U.S 41.
As he looked back on his 23 years with Pudgee’s, Sterling said he, and also his son, Chris, who had worked side by side with him as a cook, thoroughly enjoyed providing Pudgee’s’ customers with the best product they could make.
“What has happened, the cost of everything has gone up. When I first started Pudgee’s, hamburger was 83 cents a pound,” he said. “We just weren’t making enough to pay the bills, and we couldn’t find employees to cook for a second shift so we could stay open at night. You can raise your prices, but how much are you going to pay for a hot dog?
“I didn’t get into the business to see how much money I could get from people; it was always about giving families an affordable meal.”
Sterling, 62, said closing is bittersweet, but the stress is “off my chest – almost.”
“I think I’m in better shape now than when I was struggling to survive, so it’s all right,” he said. “It’s actually very all right. It’s actually all good.”
On July 24, Sterling posted this statement on Pudgee’s Facebook page:
“The Pudgee family wants to thank you all for the last 23 years here in Floral City, but it’s time to say goodbye. The last couple days have been quite overwhelming with your love and support ... the good news is, be on the lookout for Pudgee’s to reopen in the future with new owners.
“We will definitely keep you posted. Thanks again for all of your support and we will miss you all.
“Forever thankful, Pudgee.”