Small Business

The Hot Dog Professor


Practical business tips from Mark Reitman, the founder of Hot Dog University in Milwaukee, include choosing the right soundtrack

Do you need a degree to run a hot dog cart? Mark Reitman, the founder of Hot Dog University in Milwaukee, thinks so. For $300, the former elementary school teacher and guidance counselor with a fondness for Chicago-style dogs, offers aspiring vendors a hands-on, two-day course on the ins and outs of the mobile food business. Six to eight students at a time participate in a course, and Reitman, who launched the business in June, 2006, says it is profitable and plans to expand it.

On the first day of the program, participants learn the basics in a classroom setting—from getting the right licenses to finding a prime location. On the second day, Reitman brings the class into the field to run a cart and sell dogs themselves. He bases his coursework on his three years of experience moonlighting as a vendor at a mall in Wisconsin. (The opening of the mall's food court prompted him to try his hand at instruction.)

The beauty of the course, say graduates, resides in its affordability, lessons in the basics of the hot dog business, and tips that are applicable to other food businesses (BusinessWeek.com, 12/17/07). Former students such as Dan Council, who plans to forgo traditional retirement to sell hot dogs to fishermen from his boat on Lake Wisconsin, credit Reitman with helping them build a foundation for a successful business.

A few tips from Reitman, the self-proclaimed PhD and professor of hot dogs, follow:

Find a prime location.. Pick a spot with few competitors, plenty of foot traffic, and zoning that allows you to sell your products without cumbersome restrictions.

Keep your menu simple. Whether you are running a food business or a store, you want to avoid bringing in a large inventory that may not sell. The simpler your offerings, the less complicated and less costly it will be to run your business. For example, Brad Bailey and Paul Frautschi, both recent HDU graduates, originally offered dozens of items on their menu, but say customers were overwhelmed by the choices. Now the duo, which runs Mad Dogs in Madison, Wis., offers only the basics and expects to make a profit in 2008.

Find ways to advertise for free. A proponent of providing authentic, high-quality products, Reitman wants his students to make sure clients know how good the hot dogs they're selling really are. One way he suggests doing that is by using free materials from vendors. For example, if you're selling Nathan's (NATH) dogs, then you could put a Nathan's umbrella and sign on your cart. This way, customers will associate your cart with an already established brand's hot dogs.

Put on a good show. Having a hot dog cart or stand is not the same as owning a gourmet restaurant. But it is still a service business. "You're on stage when you're running a hot dog stand," says Bailey. "You have to have a personality or people won't come back." He adds that if you're generally unhappy, then the food service industry is not for you.

Appeal to the senses. A major focus of Hot Dog University is having students pick up marketing tricks. Reitman covers how hot dog vendors must use sight, smell, sound, and taste to attract customers (BusinessWeek.com, 3/15/06). The logos and brand colors on the cart's signage draw attention through sight. To appeal to one's sense of smell, Reitman suggests grilling onions on the cart. For sound, he has students play what he calls "happy-feet music," anything that gets toes tapping and makes waiting in line seem more pleasurable. This, in turn, helps lure people again with sight. "It's a mob mentality," says Reitman. "If you see a lot of people in line, you think it must be good."

Of course, a customer's sense of taste is also crucial. One trick Council used to introduce those in his small town of Lodi, Wis., to Chicago-style dogs was to give them away at first. He was confident if they tasted the product, they would be hooked and would return as paying customers.

Pay attention to industry trends. Even if you're launching or maintaining a side business, you can still uncover new revenue streams. Reitman notes that there is a demand for carts at seemingly unlikely events such as weddings.

Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.

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