When Joe Bushfan decided to leave his glamorous job as a celebrity bodyguard in order to sell hot dogs in one of Durham’s roughest areas, his family thought he was crazy.
“My wife thought I was crazy, my kids thought I was crazy … my dad thought I was crazy too,” Bushfan said.
“I went from making almost $3,000 a week, traveling first class going all around the world, and now I’m selling hot dogs on the worst corner in all of Durham. There was all different kinds of illegal commerce: prostitution, gangs, drugs, murder, all of that.”
But Joe’s Diner, which is brimming with signs like “Enter as strangers, leave as friends” and “Be Nice or Leave,” has changed all of that. Bushfan said the crime rate in the area has dropped over 62 percent since the family-friendly community diner opened in 2010.
“I grew up in an area far worse than this, and I wanted to jump into the belly of the beast and just turn (the community) around,” said Bushfan, who is a Boston native.
Dan Hill, who has worked with Bushfan at the diner for the last five years, said Joe’s Diner has been an important cornerstone in the effort to revitalize the Angier-Driver corner, which will celebrate the revamped streetscape with a ribbon-cutting ceremony later this month.
Hill said a lot of the community improvement is due to Bushfan’s relationship with the locals.
“(Joe) is here to be their best friend,” Hill said. “So they have no excuse. If they choose to make bad decisions, then he’ll call them out. And as a consequence, they’ve moved on.
“Nobody’s going to bully Joseph.”
Bushfan has also been mentoring high school students, giving them jobs at the diner in order to keep them busy and out of trouble.
“They’re really good kids,” Bushfan said.
Though he’s been committed to making a change in the community, Bushfan said he didn’t know a hot dog would be the way to make a difference.
“I did not know a hot dog was gonna change a community,” Bushfan said. “It’s amazing, especially being a black man in America. I’ve tried so much stuff … But this here is something I can build a legacy for my family. For my kids’ kids. So that was amazing to me.”
Bushfan said he got the idea to sell hot dogs in Durham because he could never find a decent hot dog outside of his hometown of Boston.
“I would go up to Boston and bring back the stuff I grew up on,” Bushfan said. “My kids would say, ‘Dad, these hot dogs pop in your face.’ … That’s the marking of a good hot dog.”
Bushfan started out selling the hot dogs, which he said were rated number one in the Wall Street Journal in 2008, from a modest hot dog cart on the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street in 2008. He has since expanded into a full-blown diner on the same corner, and has recruited some of his once-skeptical family members into the business.
Macklin Bushfan, Joe Bushfan’s 26-year-old son and the youngest of six, has been working at Joe’s Diner for the entire five years. He said he was skeptical about his father’s plan to sell hot dogs at first.
“(Selling hot dogs) was just an odd idea. It didn’t really make a lot of sense,” Macklin Bushfan said.
“It’s just not like a regular idea, most people want to open a restaurant or sell pizza or something.
“But (Joe Bushfan) did some research and he said if you do hot dog vendors the right way, there’s some money in it.”
Antwan Bushfan, Joe Bushfan’s oldest son, also works at the diner as an assistant manager.
Joe Bushfan said he hopes to eventually expand the business into a national franchise and open stores in cities like Washington DC and Atlanta.
“It’s a business that gets passed down,” Macklin Bushfan said, noting that he could see himself as the next Joe.