Chain Profile: Dog Haus Wants You to Rethink the Hot Dog

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.

DogHaus3Dog Haus’ furniture, such as its bar-height communal tables, is fabricated by a company owned by one of the chain’s cofounders, so tables can be made to literally any specification.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.

DogHaus6 The chain finishes its entrees with a hot-holding table for chili, grilled onion and peppers, and then a pizza table for cold toppings.“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.

DogHaus5Dog Haus employs an open kitchen, where it cooks sausages on a chargrill and hot dogs and burgers on its flattop.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.