Hot dogs are a cool thing in Vancouver

The owners of Vancouver’s hot dog businesses put unique twists on an American classic

Nomad Hot Dogs

Maybe you’re in the mood for something adventurous, like a hot dog topped with Kimchi inspired pears or curried cauliflower. If so, head to the corner of Evergreen and Grand, to The Nomad’s Gourmet Hot Dogs. Looking for a place to sit back and relax with a cold beer and some serious comfort food? Stop by MADdogs Gourmet Hot Dogs on the northwest corner of 162nd Ave. and 18th St., where you can indulge in a bacon cheeseburger dog (complete with lettuce and pickles), or a pork bratwurst topped with bacon and creamy gorgonzola cream sauce. Dad$ Dogs can satisfy your taste for something a little spicy, with an all-beef polish sausage with a bazillion toppings, including hot sauce. Black Dog Hot Dogs can warm you up on a cold day as well, with one of their ever-popular green chili dogs. Or maybe you’re just plain hungry, in which case the Wiener Wagon’s “The Works” may be just the ticket: a hot dog served with pita bread, chili, sweet relish, lettuce, dill pickle, tomato, onion, bell pepper, mushrooms, sauerkraut, pineapple, cheese, ketchup, mayo and sour cream topped off with more chili and Fritos.

The local connection

While the hot dog is considered the quintessential Americana food, the owners of Vancouver’s hot dog businesses have added their own twists. But while their offerings vary considerably, many are equally dedicated to serving all-natural – and in many cases – locally-sourced ingredients.

For example, Debbie and Lou Hijar, co-owners of MADdogs since last October, make many of their own toppings and serve all-natural meat products (no hormones, antibiotics or added nitrites or nitrates). Their buns are made by a bakery in Portland and their handmade ice cream sandwiches come from Portland’s Ruby Jewel. Beer and wines are also regionally sourced.

“We’re continuing to scale down what ‘local’ means,” said Debbie.

Similarly, Gabriel Woodhead, owner/operator of The Nomad’s Gourmet Hot Dogs, makes many of his own toppings and sources everything else from local businesses, such as buns from Sugar & Salt Bakery & Café and handmade sausages and dogs from Top Choice Meat Market.

Black Dog Hot Dogs owner Kurt Muller, who sets up his cart three days a week on the corner of 13th and Franklin in Vancouver, gets all of his ingredients from within the region, including buns and hot dogs made in Washington. The lone exception, he said, are green chilies from New Mexico.

The Wiener Wagon (12th and Main) hearkens back to simpler times – the cart has been in operation since 1976, uses no electricity, and doesn’t take credit cards (all prices are under $5). The sausages come from Butcher Boys, and current owner Robin Povec uses Butcher Boys’ kitchen in the wee hours of the morning to do her prep work.

Different starting points but a common ending

The stories behind each of Vancouver’s hot dog businesses are as unique as their menus.

Robin started working for the founder of the Wiener Wagon, Skip Ballweber, in 1981. With a few years’ break, she’s worked there ever since and officially took over the business from Skip last year.

“I’ve known many of our customers for 30 years,” said Robin. “I often have their food ready before they get here.”

Robin is grateful to Skip for giving her a chance those many years ago, and she still looks after him, especially since his wife passed away. She often takes him a couple of “The Works” at the end of the day.

Gabriele tired of the corporate world, working as a customer service rep for Amazon. He decided to pursue his dual passions of food and travel. Many of his toppings are inspired by his travels, such as the bright colors and spicy aromas of Asian markets.

Kurt also left behind a corporate job, retiring after several years in investment management.

“It was way too stressful,” he said, recalling his old career. “People try to build a lifestyle around a job, and I wanted to build a job around a lifestyle.”

With Black Dog Hot Dogs, Kurt gets to see smiling faces every day because “no one is angry when they’re buying a hot dog.”

Deide Collins, owner of Dad$ Hot Dogs, has been in the hospitality industry her whole life. Now she works for herself, opening the hot dog stand this year that her dad drove up from Arizona (the “DAD” in the business name comes from Deide’s initials, however).

“I love serving people,” Deide stated. “I like making them happy.”

A recent compliment at the Vancouver Wind & Jazz festival made her day.

“An elderly gentleman told me ‘this is not just a hot dog!’” said Deide.

Lou and Debbie also have long careers in the restaurant business, involved in corporate training and management for franchises and company-operated restaurants. But when the kids graduated from college, said Debbie, it was time to “step out and do our own thing.”

“The gourmet hot dogs were a niche we believed in,” Lou said. “We saw a market that was ready to explode, similar to gourmet hamburgers.”

Unlike the other hot dog businesses featured here. MADdogs is a brick-and-mortar, full-service experience, with indoor and outdoor seating.

“We wanted to serve something you feel great about eating and love to eat,” said Debbie. “And we wanted the service to match the food quality – someplace people can relax and not feel rushed.”

The positive response from customers, Debbie said – the “Oohs and Ahs – that’s what continues to drive you every day.”

Meeting today’s challenges and planning for the future

Lou said that running your own business is markedly different than the corporate scene. He and Debbie now have to handle all aspects of the business, from day-to-day operations to marketing and HR.

“Marketing today is a different world than it was six or seven years ago,” said Lou, who is mastering Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Facebook. Debbie added that the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and the East Vancouver Business Association are great resources and an excellent way to connect with other people.

Gabriel said that finding the right location was his biggest hurdle. He tried moving around from spot to spot, but eventually settled on his current location and “fell in love” with the area.

“I purposefully picked a location that was not downtown,” said Gabriel. “I strive more to pull people to come, instead of being just a convenient location – it’s a watering hole. I’ve seen the beginnings of new personal relationships and new business conversations.”

Deide, too, has found location to be her biggest challenge. Currently she travels to La Center’s casino construction site on Tuesdays and Fridays, 9th and Broadway on Mondays, and Tetra Pak Inc. in Fruit Valley on Thursdays.

Each business owner has a different view for the future of the business. Lou said that MADdogs intends to explore catering more, and that growing to two or three locations was a possibility. Gabriel said that he has historically been “anti-growth,” wanting to keep things simple – but he recently added one employee, and is toying with the idea of launching a second hot dog cart in another “underserved area.” Deide said she was looking for a “good vegetarian hot dog” and hoped to move her business in that direction once she found one. Kurt also talked about adding another type of hot dog to his menu.

But with all the different backgrounds, menus and visions, Lou spoke for all when he said, “It’s great to be part of the growth of Vancouver, and see small businesses succeeding.”

Hot dogs in the ‘Couve & where to find them

Black Dog Hot Dogs 13th and Franklin, Vancouver
Dad$ Dogs 2201 Main St., Vancouver
MADdogs Gourmet Hot Dogs 1900 NE 162nd Ave. D114, Vancouver
The Nomad’s Gourmet Hot Dogs 703 Grand Blvd., Vancouver
The Wiener Wagon 12th and Main St., Vancouver
Vida Flare Outside Fortside Brewing, 2200 NE Andresen

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.