News Branch Air Force

We celebrate the life of the airman who became the ‘AAFES Hot Dog Guy’

The AAFES picture turned Robin Lawrence Williams into a military celebrity.
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Robin Lawrence Williams
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Robin Lawrence Williams, died on March 14, 2024. (AAFES/Robin Williams’ family)

Air Force veteran Robin Lawrence Williams, whose picture as the “Hot Dog Guy” has adorned countless base exchanges, had died, according to an obituary that was posted online.

Williams rose to the top of the Air Force’s enlisted ranks as  chief master sergeant, the obituary says. After retiring from the service, he served as a senior program manager at the headquarters for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES. He died on March 14 of a heart attack at 60

“His commitment to duty, unwavering leadership, and compassion left an unforgettable mark on all who had the privilege of serving alongside him,” the obituary says.

Born and raised in London, England, Williams enlisted in the Air Force in 1983 and he completed several assignments in the Air Force Medical Services and Public Health career field, including serving as medical operations squadron superintendent, wellness center program manager, and alternate first sergeant, according to his retirement pamphlet, which his family provided to Task & Purpose.

Williams also responded to several natural disasters during his Air Force career, including two earthquakes and three typhoons. As part of one such response, the governor of Guam deputized Williams and his staff to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In 2004, Williams was selected by the head of AAFES to serve as the Food and Drug Safety and Defense Office director for more than 13,000 AAFES name brand and fast food facilities, 10 distribution centers, and five production plants worldwide. It was here that he was pulled aside one day for an informal photo shoot that led to the picture.

Five years later, he deployed as the U.S. Air Forces Central Command Air Force Forces Public Health Manager. In that role, he  oversaw public health operations at 14 medical treatment facilities supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a chief master sergeant, Williams served as the 19th Medical Group Superintendent at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. He provided guidance directly to three squadron commanders and senior leadership.

Throughout Williams’ Air Force career, he earned Distinguished Graduate from every formal military education course that he attended, according to his family.

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Brad Nisbett, AAFES’ vice president of corporate policy, knew Williams personally and described him as a “mentor, friend, and colleague to all.”

Hot Dog Guy
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Robin Lawrence Williams, known as the “Hot Dog Guy” from his picture at Army & Air Force Exchange Service Shopettes, died on March 14, 2024. (Ever Loved) Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Robin Lawrence Williams, known as the “Hot Dog Guy” from his picture at Army & Air Force Exchange Service Shopettes, died on March 14, 2024. (Ever Loved)

In addition to doing photoshoots for AAFES, Williams also played a pivotal role in the Exchange’s HEROES veterans advocacy group, which takes part in local veterans events and shares information about benefits, Nisbett told Task & Purpose.

“He was a leader amongst that group and just a true patriot inside uniform and outside of uniform,” Nisbett said. “There’s not a person out there that can say a bad word about him – and if they did, they’d be lying.”

But the picture that made Williams an AAFES celebrity across the military was taken in 2004.  Wearing the then-current woodland-pattern Battle Dress Uniform or BDUs, Williams is rapturously preparing to devour a hot dog and soda.  His face became ubiquitous at AAFES Shoppettes, which were later renamed Express stores.

As Williams gained fame on the internet, many people became fascinated with the origin story of the “AAFES Hot Dog Guy.” Eventually, Robert Philpot, editor of AAFES’ internal publication Exchange Post and historian, wrote a July 2022 story of how the picture came to be.

“Clearly, even in that conversation, he had a good sense of humor about both being this hot dog guy and sharing his name with a celebrity,” Philpot told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.

In 2004, Williams was an active-duty senior master sergeant serving as an Air Force public health and food safety liaison at AAFES Exchange headquarters, Philpot wrote. Many people were concerned at the time about bioterrorist attacks on the US. food supply in general and military installations in particular.

His arrival also coincided with AAFES’ efforts to roll out the “Snack Avenue” at Shoppettes, which included self-serve roller grills that cooked taquitos and hot dogs for customers.

Williams recalled to Philpot how he was asked to have his picture taken for the Snack Avenue menu.

“Being new to working in the retail business environment, the only thing I could think of was, ‘Oh, they just want some pictures for the restaurant upstairs in the building. Why not? This should be fun,’” Williams told Philpot. “At the time, I completely forgot about how global the Exchange was and also oblivious to the potential use of images for broader marketing.”

At the photo shoot, Williams was told, “Hold the drink up and look like you’re enjoying the hot dog,” he recalled.

Things went well and Williams forgot about the pictures until he was told a couple of months later that the hot dog shot would be on the menu boards for every Shoppette in the world.

“That’s when everything started to snowball,” Williams said. “I started getting calls from friends in the military saying, ‘Is that what you do at the Exchange? Take pictures and eat hot dogs?’”

Williams suddenly became recognized wherever he went. At one Shoppette conference in Phoenix, Williams took the stage and he was greeted with: “Oh wow, it’s the Hot Dog Guy!” and, “Strike the pose!”

When he was downrange years later, airmen and soldiers would ask him in the chow hall if he was the “Hot Dog Guy” and then ask to have their pictures taken with them.

“I figured, why not, it was the least that I could do to make their day, especially given the austere conditions that they were living and working in downrange,” Williams said. “In fact, many of them expressed their excitement and left quickly to tell their friends that they had met the Hot Dog Guy.”

Although Williams has done other photo shoots for AAFES, the hot dog image remained his magnum opus. For years afterward, the picture would suddenly become popular again and Williams would get emails saying, “The legend lives on!”

He joked to Philpot that the picture’s popularity allowed him to achieve a bucket list goal: Becoming an “international male model.”

UPDATE: 03/20/2024; this story was updated with more information about retired Chief Master Sgt. Robin Lawrence Williams’ Air Force career.

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