Doing Good, Getting Good
A portrait of Jaequan Faulkner, Mr. Faulkner’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs by Mecca Bos
The first time I meet Jaequan Falkner, he’s setting up his hot dog stand in front of the Fire Station 14 on North Minneapolis’ Lowry Avenue. Like any good business person, he’s on his cell phone, troubleshooting: he needs extension cords and he’s out of onions. Would-be customers are already milling about waiting for a crack at a Mr. Faulkner’s Old Fashioned Hot Dog.
From the Star Tribune to the BBC, media outlets around the country picked up on Jaequan’s story when his front yard hot dog stand nearly closed thanks to a complaint. Did he have a permit to be selling those dogs? He didn’t. But instead of doing the predictable thing and shutting him down, the City of Minneapolis with the help of Northside Economic Opportunities Network (NEON) and other entities, acted nimbly and progressively on his behalf. Working directly with Jaequan, together they created a plan to keep him in business for good, which was Jaequan’s goal and desire.
The feel-good story resonated in the age of negative stories a la “Permit Patty,” which has activated a national conversation about people of color being reprimanded for innocent public behavior. But what about the real story of Jaequan in the midst of the media maelstrom? Who is Jaequan Faulkner?
While his business has taken off like gangbusters this season, it’s important to remember that Jaequan is still a kid. A kid who attends all media events and appearances under the watchful eyes of his uncle and aunt Jerome and LaDonna Faulkner, who took permanent custody of Jaequan and his siblings four years ago. While he speaks for himself in interviews, the couple quietly coach him in the knowing, parental way of kind but firm adults. When Jaequan starts using an emphatic hand gesture to drive home a point, his uncle tells him to stop. He does.
When Jaequan was fewer than six months old, his mother left him and his two siblings in the care of their grandmother. When she fell ill, the children were then passed on to their great aunt, who already had five children of her own. She eventually turned to her brother, Jerome, and inquired whether he would be interested in taking the kids. He said, “sure.” But it wasn’t without an ensuing custody battle with Jaequan’s mother, which Jerome and his wife LaDonna ultimately won.
The tumultuous childhood had an effect on Jaequan.
“He was already in a state of depression when he was about nine,” says Jerome. “He already had in mind what he wanted to do to himself.” It’s the second time he mentions that Jaequan had been suicidal before he was old enough to enter middle school. Jaequan’s family life
As he settled into his new home, Jaequan flitted about the perimeter of his uncle’s basement bar. The hot dog roller caught his eye, and he badgered his uncle about using it. Jaequan says he was intrigued by how it seemed to make the dogs so much different than any he’d ever had, but Jerome didn’t initially indulge his nephew.
“It was adults down there-- you want hotdogs, go upstairs and boil some!” But Jaequan would not be deterred. Eventually, Jerome relented. If he wanted to use it, he’d have to go into business. It was an important lesson in Jerome and LaDonna’s household: figure out what you want to do with your life, figure it out early, and start to focus. Jaequan’s older brother has recently left for the military with the same admonition in mind. Jerome and Jaequan, with endless behind the scenes help from LaDonna, started selling dogs off their front porch in North Minneapolis, but Jaequan wasn’t committed to the cause.
“I liked all the attention my uncle was giving me. I wasn’t really focused on the hot dogs.” Jerome made him pack up the business until he got serious about things. And this year, he did. More so than anyone could have ever imagined.
Jaequan’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs
When I ask Jaequan the inevitable question, what is it you like about selling hot dogs, he says: “I like seeing people smiling-- I enjoy putting smiles on people’s faces and them putting a smile on mine.” And with this, his chestnut eyes begin to well, and he weeps.
“I want you to know I can do good. That my family tries to do good. My family never had anyone to look up to. . . We try to look for the positive, we don’t try to aim for the negative. We want to aim for the right thing.”
While no one can say exactly how many dogs Mr. Faulkner’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs has slung this season, one thing is clear- it’s not just the dogs that keep people coming back. As I’ve worked on this story, I’ve heard it described more than once this way: “Everyone wants a piece of Jaequan.” What he represents goes far beyond a cute 13-year-old kid with a hot dog stand.
He’s been featured on George Takei’s (best known as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek) social media page, he’s been gifted $10,000 by ConAgra, received a new laptop with business software from Daymond John of Shark Tank, been a guest on the Steve Harvey Show, become a regular stop for Minneapolis’ Bike Cops for Kids program, (an outreach program with a mission to improve relations between police and Minneapolis youth,) as well as participated in many other public events and opportunities.
Michael Kirchen, known around North Minneapolis as Officer Mike, the cop that spearheaded Bike Cops for Kids, immediately took a shine to Faulkner. He says that so many of the kids he encounters in North are “really guarded.”
“They don’t let a lot of people in. They don’t let outsiders in to get to know them. They’re hardened. . . Jaequan didn’t have that.” When I ask why he thinks so many Northside youth are guarded, he says that might be another conversation for another day, but adds: “Maybe they had a lot of negativity in their life and in their family.”
While Jaequan certainly had a similarly rough start in life, he’s received a second chance with the love of his aunt and uncle, a second chance he has harnessed into something wildly positive. It makes him an irresistible American Dream story-- a story we are all too hungry for in this moment in history. North Minneapolis has been in the public eye too many times as the nucleus of violence and difficult relations between residents and police. Jaequan has emerged as a shining emblem of positivity.
“He’s a wonderful child,” Jerome says. “He doesn’t get beside himself. He might do that in the street or something, but when he’s at home, it’s ‘Sit down, I want to talk to you.’ [And he does.]”
Back at our interview, Jaequan reasserts his pledge to pay forward the support offered him from his surrogate parents. “If someone does something for me, and I don’t repay the favor, it’s all I can think about.” He mentions how his uncle encouraged Jaequan to give a passerby a hotdog who didn’t have money to pay for one, and the next day, the man returned, cash in hand to purchase one. Jaequan pulls his T-Shirt up to his eyes to dab at the tears streaming down his face at the memory.
“Usually as a kid you feel like you don’t have a voice until your older. [My aunt and uncle] they told me: ‘You have a voice. Most people, when they get famous, they don’t think about my community. It just doesn’t feel right,” says Jaequan.
Jaequan’s future, and the future of Mr. Faulkner’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs
Like most parents everywhere, Jerome and LaDonna have insisted Jaequan refocus on school at the present moment. Jerome has tasked him with moving from the B Honor Roll to the A. Meanwhile, NEON is working on a semi-permanent space for Mr. Faulkner’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs, with part-time employees to man the business when Jaequan is at his studies and doing other, normal kid things. He’s also been scheduled to work the Loaves and Fishes food truck, where he’ll offer food to people in need.
But as he heads off to school, he’ll already be armed with the most important lesson of all, one learned at home:
“You have to do good to get good,” LaDonna emphasizes.
And, a lot of good has, and continues to come, Jaequan’s way.
NEON was instrumental in getting Mr. Faulkner’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs to where it is today. According to Ann Fix, NEON Program Manager, “The cart was way before the horse. We wanted to focus on getting that horse up to speed with the cart.”
Here’s how they did it:
NEON receives a call from the Minneapolis Empowerment Zone indicating that the city inspection office would like to keep Jaequan’s business afloat if at all possible.
An inquiry with Jaequan reveals that he wants to keep his business full time, and NEON springs into action.
NEON works with Jaequan to set up a basic business concept and business plan.
Jaequan learns simple banking systems like receipt filing.
NEON sets Jaequan up with an equipment upgrade including a larger capacity hot dog maker and cash register.
Jaequan works out of the NEON shared Loaves and Fishes food truck while he waits for his new food vendor license to arrive.
Press catches wind of Jaequan’s story, and NEON begins acting not just as a press liaison, but almost as an agent for Jaequan, as reporters from all over the country converge upon the story.
NEON helps Jaequan sort through the many business opportunities that come his way, organizing the opportunities with two simple questions: Does Jaequan want to do it? Is it a good business decision? Jaequan decides he wants to work at the police and fire stations, as well as the Urban League.
Jaequan is now incorporated as an LLC, and has a business banking account, a personal account, and a college fund.
NEON is currently trying to find Jaequan’s Old Fashioned Hot Dogs a semi-permanent location, so it can be as profitable as possible. Various business models are being discussed, but NEON is focused on keeping Jaequan close to home, in service to North Minneapolis.