It’s a little before noon on a Tuesday when Mike Carson unlocks the doors to The Shack, a nook of a storefront next to the Athena Cinema on South Court Street in Athens, and heads inside.
He finds cases of beer and booze everywhere he looks.
Carson had an extra key made for the delivery company so they’re able to get in and out of the store without him being there. When the delivery person came that day at 6 a.m., Carson was at home asleep.
On the front counter, he sees the inventory sheet the delivery person left for him. Carson pores over it to make certain he’s received everything he ordered, and he had ordered plenty.
He had sold out of almost everything in the store the previous weekend, so all that’s left in his five coolers is a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. Now, he has more beer and booze that needs to be put away, but instead of getting straight to work, he walks behind the counter and sits down.
He’s in no rush to get to work.
“The great thing about being your own boss is that you don’t have to listen to someone telling you to put all this away,” Carson says. “I’ll get to it, just not right now.”
Being his own boss isn’t something he thought would ever happen, but Carson Carson, 35, can’t imagine working for anybody else.
HE DIDN’T START AS his “own boss.”
In 2005, Carson was a sophomore economics major at Ohio University and planned on working for a corporation after graduation.
His plans changed when he got a call that changed everything: His parents told him they couldn’t afford to pay his tuition anymore and that he’d have to come home. His parents apologized, and they assured him he’d be OK.
All sorts of thoughts raced through Carson’s mind.
Are you kidding me?
I didn’t want to come here in the first place. They made me.
This ain’t fair. I got good grades. I don’t want to leave now.
Why is this happening?
Absent financial help from his parents, Carson had to come up with a way to either pay for college or return home. He didn’t like the latter option, so he decided to use money from the overage check the university gave him to buy a food cart and a vendor’s license. He had around $2,500 to spend, hardly an embarrassment of riches to work with. In the spring of ’05, though, he had enough to open “Carson’s Dog Shack.”
Now that Carson had a fledgling business to run, he needed to start making money – and fast. In two weeks, he had rent to pay on his apartment.
He figured out what he would sell from his food cart, wrote the prices on a small whiteboard and set it outside his cart:
Foot-long Hot Dog: $2
Toppings: Chili, cheese, mustard, ketchup, onion, relish
Bottled Water: $1
He parked his food cart in the parking lot next to Lucky’s Sports Tavern, 11 N. Court St., a favorite uptown bar of his, and waited for uptown bars to close.
Carson’s Dog Shack was open for business.
CARSON RAN THE DOG SHACK outdoors as a food truck for two years. But he grew tired of sitting out in the cold until 3 in the morning, so when a location at 20 S. Court St. opened in 2007, he jumped at the opportunity for a fixed place with heat. The rent was more than the $50 a month he was paying Cornwell Properties for his spot in the parking lot, but he had a feeling moving somewhere more permanent would pay off.
Family and friends, and even some Dog Shack regulars, helped him with the move indoors.
Shortly after he made the move, Carson saw the potential his store promised. He made the decision his senior year to quit school and build his career at the Dog Shack.
For almost eight years, Carson ran a late-night spot that students loved coming to on their way home from a night out. But in 2015, a customer suggested to him that along with the snacks and hot dogs, maybe he should start selling beer and cigarettes – he’d be like a mini-Speedway.
He decided to give it a go, and it didn’t take long for the beer to start outselling the food, so Carson took the opportunity to stop working so late. He got rid of the food and changed the store’s name to “The Shack.”
“Chase the money, not the dream,” he advises.
He stocked the humming coolers with Mike’s Hard, Mike’s Harder and Four Lokos. He has cases of Natural Light, Rolling Rock, Bud Light, Bud Light Platinum, Budweiser, Michelob Ultra and more brands lining the walls.
When Natural Light released its latest “Naturdays” flavor, Carson was the first around campus to carry it.
After sorority women discovered White Claws and Juuls, they told Carson he should sell them. Now, he does.
Chewing tobacco and cigarettes, too.
He’s created a one-stop shop that customers have grown to know and love. He’s become the go-to guy when someone decides, last minute, to spend their night out.
TO STUDENTS AT OHIO UNIVERSITY, Carson is a celebrity of sorts. He has judged the annual Mr. University pageant put on by Alpha Delta Pi and sponsored frat parties during spring fest season. When it’s time to party, many students go to him for their beer and booze.
He also has a significant presence on Twitter, ringing in over 6,000 followers. Under the handle @CarsonsDogshackOU, he is constantly tweeting relatable jokes, updates on what’s in stock at The Shack, tips for students on big weekends, and he even promotes other small businesses around Athens.
“He makes everyone feel like they’re his friend,” said Stormie Rothan, an Ohio University student and customer at The Shack.
But Carson is more than just an uptown merchant. He’s a man with good will and a past. In his wallet he carries a gold cross, given to him by his high-school girlfriend. He’s a family man who supports not only himself, but also an 8-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Sadie and a 7-year-old son, Micah, whom he co-parents with Micah’s mother, though they are not together.
Micah wants to be just like him, which leads to mischief every now and then.
Carson recalls one time running upstairs to find out what noise was coming from the vent – it sounded like somebody is pouring water into it, he says. When he got upstairs, he saw his son standing over the site where the mysterious noise was coming from. He quickly realized what’s going on: His son was peeing into the vent.
“I didn’t want to walk to the bathroom,” said Micah, looking up at his father.
“You don’t do that! You walk to the bathroom! Those are our rules!”
“But, Dad, why can you pee in the vent and not me?”
Carson forgot that a few days earlier he had come home from a night out with his friends – a little too drunk, he recalls – and mistook the vent for the toilet. He didn’t know Micah had seen him.
It’s not a lesson Carson wants to teach Micah. He prefers to pass on his love for chess: a game he claims to be the best in Athens County at. He brags that he will beat anyone, anytime, anywhere. He says he was captain of the chess team in high school and attended national conventions, one of which he placed fourth overall when he was 14.
Like many fathers with an energetic son, Carson has no choice but to like superheroes and comics, and he often sports themed sweatshirts and hats. But most people don’t realize he buys and sells comics, and regularly attends Ratha Con, a pop culture convention in Athens that started as a way for local comics to showcase their work and has evolved into a gathering of people with the same passion for movies, games, comics and more. Carson describes it as a mini-Comic-Con.
Growing up, he had friends on the football and basketball teams he played for, and he had friends in his electronics programming class: he was a jock and a nerd.
LIFE HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN so kind to Mike Carson. In 2005, when he came up with the idea for the Dog Shack, his friends told him not to bother.
“There are a million places to get food on Court Street,” he remembers one of them saying. “And you think you’re going to make money selling hot dogs?”
He recalls when his will to succeed was almost overtaken by his need for sleep so he could study. He was working until 3 a.m. and not getting home, let alone to bed, until 4 or 5 in the morning.
In the beginning, he had his doubts about whether he’d be able to pull it off … until one day a blackout hit Athens. Everyplace went dark.
Everyplace but 20 S. Court St.
He sold out of all the food he had in the Dog Shack when The Pigskin, a restaurant/bar up the street, gave him all the buns its buns. He ended the day using hamburger buns to sandwich the hot dogs he was selling.
He made almost $11,000 that day. It was enough for him to pay the rent he had fallen behind on, and would be the money he ultimately would use to buy the coolers that line the walls of The Shack.
THE SHACK HAS ALLOWED Carson to not only build a life but explore other business ventures.
He owns three rental houses around Athens. He is hoping, over the next five or six years, to buy more houses so he can sell The Shack and become a full-time landlord.
In the spring of 2018, he opened SuperSubs, a sandwich shop at 60 N. Court St., next door to another one of his favorite bars: The Overhang. Right now, his sandwich shop operates Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m.
Carson says he wants to focus on paying the bills before he hires a larger staff to keep the sub shop open during the day. He hopes, however, to make his shop comparable to DP Dough, a favorite of college students.
“My son is getting older,” Carson says. “I don’t want to sell beer forever. I don’t want him to grow up and be 19 or 20 and say, ‘Oh, yeah, my dad owns a beer store.’”
When Micah was born on Jan. 26, 2012, Carson started thinking less like the college kid who opened a shop just to get by and more like a father. He didn’t have health insurance; he didn’t have a house; he didn’t see a need for either.
He would work through the academic year selling beer, and then he’d go on trips all summer.
Now, he’s got a house, an insurance policy and a boy who thinks the world of him. They love to play “Destiny,” an online video game. Carson says his son can beat the game just as quickly as he himself can.
He loves seeing his son, who has set a goal of becoming a professional baseball player, figure out life.
“I want to play forever,” Micah says about his baseball dreams. “I used to want to be a basketball player like [Stephen] Curry, but he don’t make enough money. I want to be rich.”
Everything is a competition to Carson and Micah, from who can eat the fastest to who’s quickest at brushing his teeth. The two are now on a health kick, and Micah will wake up and walk to his dad’s room and proudly tell him, “I already drank a whole glass of water today, Dad. Did you?”
WHEN HE CAME TO ATHENS almost 20 years ago, Carson pictured his life after Ohio University in a cubical somewhere, crunching numbers for a large corporation. He had no idea, however, what was to come.
He never thought he’d still be in the magical little town of Athens, Ohio, at 35, but he never expected to be an entrepreneur either. He certainly had no plans of becoming well known in this Appalachian town he fell in love with.
He says once a man in Athens turns 30, he enters a limbo: He’s too old to kick it with college kids but too young to hang out with professors.
He wouldn’t change things, though.
Ask him, and he says he’ll never be anything but his own boss.
“If all of this was to blow up and fall down, I still have my hotdog cart,” he says.
He chased the money, and he got the dream.