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Ty Kiisel: Hot dogs, customer experience and growing a cult following

Published: Friday, July 18 2014 11:40 a.m. MDT

Focusing on the customer while raising money is a great way to build a business and a cult following. At least that's the lesson of this little hot dog stand.

http://www.jdawgs.com

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A few years ago I worked in Utah County. I didn’t go to BYU or know much of anything about the Provo/Orem area before I started working there — other than I had a few friends that went to the Y, and I drove past it on my way to places like Moab, St. George and Zions National Park. One afternoon for lunch, my colleagues thought it important that I experience what they thought was a fine-dining institution in Provo, JDawgs.

My first experience ordering my ho -dog at a little shack just outside of the BYU campus and sitting on the curb with my co-workers was a little anti-climatic — but my JDawg with special sauce and relish was delicious. I thought it was the best hot dog I’d ever eaten.

It wasn’t long after we started going there before they opened up a little restaurant in the strip mall next to the shack. There were places to sit down (if you got there earlier enough, but the character of the place didn’t change — neither did the quality of the food. It was still the best hot dog I’d ever eaten.

Over the course of the next few years we’d hit JDawgs for lunch every couple of weeks or so. The menu is pretty focused — a beef or Polish dog, a variety of chips and soft drinks. Although the dogs are incredible, if you’re not a hot dog connoisseur or willing to try this all-American culinary delight, don’t bother, you won’t find a hamburger or even French fries.

Although I was a big fan of JDawgs, when I changed jobs and started working in South Jordan the restaurant kind of fell off my radar.

Because I wasn’t in the area every day, I missed the opening of the Orem store and the newest store in Lehi. About a month or two ago, a friend suggested we make a visit to the Lehi location. I was excited to rekindle my relationship with JDawgs, but I’ll admit, when he told me about the store in Orem and the new store in Lehi, I was concerned they had probably “sold out to the man” and it wouldn’t be as good. They are talking about a new location in Salt Lake County too. No way could they keep the same vibe I’d come to appreciate at the original.

I was wrong.

Over the last couple of months we’ve made the short trek from South Jordan to Lehi a couple of times for lunch and I’ve introduced four or five people to my favorite hot-dog for dinner. The restaurant is nicer than the original, but the dog is still fantastic and the employees are incredible. As I’ve introduced every JDawgs virgin to this new dining adventure, the employees make trying a new hot dog a real experience.

Earlier this week, my wife and I introduced my mother to the place. And yes, she loved it (she is my mother after all). One of the employees while tidying up the restaurant regaled us with the JDawg story from humble beginnings in the shack to where they are now. He wasn’t a manager, just one of the crew. He was excited to be there, glad to be serving up the best hot dog in the world and almost anxious to tell us about how it all started.

Many entrepreneurs focus the first few years on finding investors and putting together the capital to grow. “J” pawned his Fender Telecaster guitar to buy the 12 x 12 shack where it all began. I think he credits his mom with the recipe for the secret sauce — which is what makes the dog for me (I understand there are only four or five people who know the ingredients). Over the years JDawgs has amassed pretty much a cult following, yours truly included, as this hot dog empire starts to take hold.

“Finding the right people to work at JDawgs is the hard part,” says our hot dog chef. “We don’t hire just anybody. We want to make sure the customer experience doesn’t change.”

So far, so good.

I love supporting and patronizing places like this. I don’t know “J” and am not getting anything out of talking up his restaurant other than the satisfaction of knowing that if I can convince a few more people into checking it out they’ll still be around when I need to get my fix.

This is one place that has it figured out. Fill a market need with an incredible product and finding the capital to thrive and expand will come — whether you’re bootstrapping, looking for financing or courting investors. I could have never imagined that little 12 x 12 shack turning into multiple restaurants. Do yourself a favor. Visit the website, find the nearest location to you and try one for yourself. I like the beef dog with special sauce and relish. My wife likes special sauce, onions and peppers. You won’t be disappointed.

A Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about small business finance issues for lendio.com and is author of the book, "Getting a Business Loan: Financing Your Main Street Business."

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