FOODSERVICE EQUIPMENT & SUPPLIES ONLINE — Chain Profile: Dog Haus Wants You to Rethink the Hot Dog — by Toby Weber
This California-based chain intends to raise the reputation of the humble hot dog with a menu of all-beef franks, high-end toppings and scores of franchise locations in the works.
Not many restaurant chains get their start as an admittedly dumb joke. Dog Haus is an exception. “The idea started in college,” says Quasim Riaz, founding partner of the Pasadena, Calif.-based chain specializing in “craft-casual” hot dogs, sausages and burgers. “I said I wanted to come up with a restaurant called ‘What Up, Dog,’ only because when you go through the drive-thru, somebody could say ‘What up, dog?’ It was stupid, but hey.”
Riaz left college in 1999 but didn’t start What Up, Dog. Instead, he and his college buddy Hagop Giragossian went into business together, putting their two noses to several different grindstones. The pair first took over the metal-fabrication and powder-coating business owned by Riaz’s father — and it’s worth noting this asset would come to play a big role in Dog Haus’ success.
In 2001 they dipped their toes into the foodservice business for the first time, opening a coffee-and-smoothies truck a full decade before food trucks entered the mainstream. They’d spend their days at the powder-coating business and nights in the truck, working everything from movie wrap parties to carnivals to outdoor classical music concerts. “We thought it was so cool,” recalls Riaz. “It was painted red and green, and when you honked the horn the ‘Godfather’ music would play.”
In 2005, the partners started a Mediterranean small plate restaurant, which they’ve since converted into a gastropub. It was at this restaurant that, in 2009, the idea for a hot dog joint went from a punch line to a real possibility, says Riaz.
“We were sitting there in our packed bar, and Hagop said, ‘Look at all these people at our restaurant right now. Later tonight they’re going to go somewhere and eat.’ That was the catalyst. We started brainstorming.”
A few weeks later, Giragossian got a call from André Vener, who knew Giragossian and Riaz from their time with the coffee truck. Vener had recently sold his own fine-dining restaurant, redwhite + bluezz, and was in the planning stages of opening up his own food truck — specializing in hot dogs. The three soon decided to join forces, putting the core Dog Haus team in place. While they all had input in every aspect of the operation, Riaz focused on operations and design, Giragossian on food and Vener on marketing, public relations and finance.
In October 2010, the trio opened their first store.
“The Hot Dog Isn’t an Afterthought”
While Riaz’s idea for a hot dog restaurant started out as a joke, Dog Haus begins with a simple fact about the nation’s restaurant scene. While consumers can go to plenty of places for burgers or pizza, their options for hot dogs tend to be far fewer. This void exists, Riaz says, because people just don’t see the hot dog as something that can be a high-quality food, no matter how tasty.
To actually be — and be seen as — a restaurant with a quality menu, the chain offers a hot dog that’s far superior to what you’ll find at a ballpark. “With the hot dogs we wanted to say, ‘You know what, the hot dog isn’t an afterthought. It’s not scrap meat that’s stuck into a tube.’”
Dog Haus decided on skinless hot dogs made with proprietary spices and a proprietary all-beef blend. And once they got the dog down, the Dog Haus team began to think about what would go on it and what it would go on. The goal, Riaz says, was to create a “culinary experience on a hot dog.”
A big part of this experience is the bun — or, more precisely, the lack of a traditional bun. In its place: three Hawaiian rolls, buttered and toasted on a flattop grill.
The rolls, says Riaz, offer a sweetness that pairs well with the savory meat while giving the dogs a distinctive look. What’s more, they’re modular. Dogs and sausages get three rolls in a row, Haus burgers get a two-roll by two-roll square, while sliders get one roll.
“We get them in trays, and it’s almost like playing Tetris,” says Riaz. “If a hot dog bun breaks, we break the other two off and get three sliders. So we don’t really have much bread waste because the product stays fresh for so long.”
The next piece of the culinary puzzle, of course, is the topping selection. One of the first “Haus Dogs” developed by the chain shows what Dog Haus aims for. The Sooo Cali features, a dog topped with wild arugula, spicy basil aioli, crispy onions, avocado and tomato. Another popular hot dog is the Tae Kwon Dog, with bulgogi glaze, kimchi and Korean chili powder, topped with a fried egg.
Dog Haus’ culinary ambitions don’t stop with the hot dogs, of course. In fact, the chain’s menu is divided roughly into thirds, with sausages and burgers being the two other major categories.
On the sausage front, Dog Haus isn’t satisfied with offering a basic brat. To help develop this side of the menu, the chain brought on board Adam Gertler, a Food Network personality and expert sausage maker. For Dog Haus he developed sausages like Another Night in Bangkok, with spicy Thai red currywurst, peanut sauce, Asian slaw and crushed peanuts, and the Pig and the Fig, a sausage stuffed with Emmentaler (aka Swiss cheese), with fig and onion relish, wild arugula, whole-grain mustard and sliced almonds — “it’s almost like a charcuterie board on a sandwich” says Riaz — as well as the Fonz, which comes with pastrami and is much like one he made for a Food Network show.
The burgers, made with a house blend of beef and spices, come with equally imaginative topping combinations: smoked bacon, white American cheese, garlic aioli and caramelized onions; fried egg, white American cheese, tomatillo sauce, chipotle aioli and avocado; and many more.
Original Menu, Original Decor
Naturally, Dog Haus’ founders want the appearance of their restaurants to reflect the creativity of their menu. When they first started looking through furniture catalogs, though, they didn’t find what they were looking for. “[We saw that] it’s all the same . . . Here’s a four-top, here’s a base,” recalls Riaz. “We didn’t want to do that. Our food isn’t like that, and the dining experience isn’t just about the food. So, how do we mimic the creativity of our food and do that with our furniture and our design?”
The answer to that question was found in the metal-fabrication and powder-coating shop that Quasim still oversees (though he no longer runs its day-to-day operations). The team used the equipment and expertise they essentially had in-house to build Dog Haus’ furniture. They settled on a look that is at once relaxed, hip and industrial. The first round of furniture featured four- and six-foot picnic tables with flat-black, powder-coated metal frames resting on red casters, with stained wood slats for the seats and table tops, as well as bar-height communal tables that used the same materials and seated eight to 10 people.
When the chain began franchising in 2013, the team kept this approach to decor, but changed the particulars. Once again relying on their in-house fabrication expertise, they designed picnic tables made out of 3/8-inch hot-rolled steel. For the tops, they went with stained butcher blocks, a choice that makes sense on multiple levels.
“We do fresh ground meat for our burgers, hot dogs and sausages. We wanted to have some of that feeling in the restaurant by having that butcher block on top,” Riaz says. “It also adds a lot of warmth, because when you’re dealing with rolled steel, you get kind of a cold feeling.”
That cold feeling that can come from steel furniture and concrete floors is further offset by the activity of Dog Haus’ front-of-the-house kitchen. The cookline sits along the back wall, also home to a soft-serve ice cream machine and beer taps. The cookline itself starts with a chargrill, where kitchen staffers cook the sausages and fire-grill peppers for various house-made sauces.
Next to the chargrill sits a 48-inch flattop that staff use to cook the hot dogs and burgers, caramelize onions, and toast the buttered Hawaiian rolls, which are stored on a rack nearby. Refrigerated drawers sit beneath the flattop, where proteins are stored for easy access.
Initially, Riaz notes, Dog Haus considered going with a steam-heated flattop, but they found hamburgers cooked on such units didn’t develop the crisp “burger bark” they were after. The chain selected a gas-fired flattop instead.
Next to the flattop is a four-burner range with a conventional oven below. On the range, kitchen staffers fry eggs and make chili. During peak volume times, they’ll also keep a pot of hot water on the stove, which they use to warm hot dogs before moving them to the grill for finishing. Staff primarily use the oven to cook bacon throughout the day. This unit, notes Riaz, was originally a convection oven, but the airflow splattered grease throughout the cooking chamber, requiring frequent oven cleanings and leading to almost-as-frequent breakdowns.
After the oven/range come two fryers used for tater tots, French fries and even bacon-wrapped hot dogs. The chain also uses the fryers to blanch the French fries before cooking them. Next to the fryers is a landing station, where fries are seasoned and held, followed by a reach-in refrigerator that stores tater tots, racks of blanched French fries and other ingredients. The cookline then ends with a small hot-holding table used for storing batches of chili, grilled onions and other foods.
The final production/finishing line faces the customer and starts with a point-of-sale system. Next comes one of the upgrades the chain has made to its design since it began franchising, and arguably the centerpiece of the restaurant: a Dog Haus-branded refrigerated deli case where uncooked hot dogs, burgers and sausages are stored. The case sits directly opposite the flattop, allowing cooks to easily restock the undercounter refrigerator with proteins throughout the day.
What’s more, each of the meats is labeled, allowing people to connect what they see with what’s on the menu. “People walk in, and they stare at [the case],” says Riaz. “It’s really cool to see your food in its rawest form. When we put that in, our sausage sales went up.”
Following the deli case is a hot table with wells, where hot toppings like chili, caramelized onions and roasted peppers are held. Kitchen staffers working this station receive the cooked and bunned burgers, dogs and sausages and add the appropriate toppings.
After the hot table, Dog Haus employs a pizza table with cold wells for holding cold toppings like cheese and tomato. The chain, notes Riaz, rejected a standard sandwich prep table in favor of the pizza table simply for the extra workspace it would provide. After cold toppings are added, finished orders are placed on a countertop, where table runners grab them to deliver to waiting customers.
Dog Haus features a fairly basic back of the house, including a few prep tables, various smallwares and refrigeration. Where the space allows it, the chain prefers to use walk-in refrigerators over reach-ins, Riaz says, because they don’t require as much time to manage storage space. Stores that can sell beer are also designed with walk-in keg coolers.
When the first Dog Haus opened its doors in October 2010, it found near immediate success. Riaz, Vener and Giragossian opened up a second store one year later and just a mile and a half away — this one with a full bar and 14 craft beers on tap. Six months after that, they opened up a third location, also nearby.
During this time, customers would regularly ask if the concept was franchising. But the answer they got was always no. “We had always thought of franchising as a dirty word. We didn’t want to be one of the big chains. You want to have that authenticity,” says Riaz.
But enough time passed and enough inquires came in that the partners decided to explore the process. After discussing the ins and outs with a franchise consultant one day, they were all sold. Giragossian, Riaz and Vener spent the next year getting their franchise disclosure statement written and putting their systems and processes on paper.
During this period, their lack of experience in the franchise world was less of a problem than one might think, Riaz states. Having opened a trio of stores in 18 months made the work of establishing a system much simpler. “The fact that we had to make sure the food was consistent, that the experience was the same — we’d already done that without knowing we were going the franchise route. We just had to take everything we’d already done to make it replicable for somebody else.”
The chain officially began selling franchises in July of 2012 and inked its first franchise agreement in August. Dog Haus now has eight locations. The chain was on track to open three more franchised locations by the end of 2014, and has agreements for another 70 stores in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah; and the chain expects a total of 25 of these units to open their doors in 2015.
To sum up, Dog Haus anticipates 500 percent growth in the next year. Additional states, including Texas and Oregon, are in Dog Haus’ expansion plans as well.
All this for a chain that specializes in the lowly hot dog.
Thanks to Dog Haus, that hot dog may not be lowly for too much longer.
Key Players Partners: Hagop Giragossian, Quasim Riaz and André Vener
Culinary Director: Michael Brown
Director of Operations: Abe Injeian
Creative Director: Zach Jennings
Marketing Director: CJ Ramirez
Würstmacher: Adam Gertler
Interior Designer: Zach Jennings; J.C. Hryb, Style De Vie Inc.
Equipment Dealer: Action Sales
Facts of Note
Headquarters: Pasadena, Calif.
Founded: Dog Haus, the restaurant, was founded in 2010; Dog Haus International, the chain’s franchise arm, was founded in 2013.
Signature menu items: Sooo Cali, Freiburger, Old Town Dog, The Pig and the Fig, Another Night in Bangkok
Number of units: 3 company-owned, 2 franchised; 3 more were slated to open by the end of 2014.
Average unit size: 1,800 to 2,800 sq. ft. (60 percent FOH, 40 percent BOH)
Average seats per unit: 60 Number of patio seats: 8 to 40
Total system sales: $8.1 million (based on the 3 corporate stores and 2 franchised stores)
Average unit sales: $31,200 per week
Check average: $12.75
Projections for unit-count growth: Approximately 25 new stores are expected to open in 2015.
Equipment package cost: $50,000 Franchisee fee: $35,000
Key expansion markets: Northern California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Denver, Texas, Utah