Ball Park, Hebrew Nation and Nathan’s. When you hear these iconic brands, the first thing that most likely comes to mind is the classic, all-time favorite food, the hot dog. Whether or not the wiener originated in Germany or Vienna to historians is debatable. But to those in the United States, the concession stand staple is just as American as apple pie and is loved by sports fans across the country.
However, Dennis McKinley, an African American entrepreneur, knocked the hot dog game out of the ballpark by putting a new twist on the beloved franks.
Coney Island Comes to Detroit
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, McKinley’s love of hot dogs began after he tasted the delicious, classic beef hot dog loaded with chili, mustard and onions from the restaurant chain Coney Island Hot Dogs. With the hot dog franchises found on every corner in the Motor City, McKinley grew up eating his favorite fast-food meal from the place named after New York’s favorite seaside amusement spot, Coney Island.
After graduating from college, McKinley wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He spent some time in Los Angeles as a movie/film producer. However, not happy with that role, the go-getter fortuitously found himself now in the extension/hair business.
“About 12 years ago in 2010, one of my girlfriends at the time was big into the hair business,” the serial entrepreneur says. “The only hair extensions they had were coming straight from India. I got in the hair business in Los Angeles, but only came to Atlanta for vacation. At that time, Detroit was known as the hair capital of the world, but Atlanta soon took that title. I knew that I could sell a bunch of hair here in Atlanta, so I bought a lot and never left.”
McKinley also had a real estate/property management and tech business, which he eventually sold. It was after selling those businesses that he was then able to learn about the power of franchise. “I was able to use the money I made from selling my businesses and buy five Subways and two Little Caesar franchises.” McKinley says. Franchising was a business model that the mogul knew well and he has continued on that path.
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A Craving Reboots an Original Franchise
With Atlanta now his permanent residence, the savvy businessman noticed the lack of fast-food hot dog chains in the city. “I was craving a hot dog and they didn’t have many choices in Atlanta. When I walked into this place called the Hot Dog Factory, I only saw two or three different types of hot dogs,” the hot dog connoisseur says.
Determined to bring a variety of hot dogs to the ATL, McKinley bought the Hot Dog Factory in 2014. After buying the restaurant, the newly crowned “Hot Dog King” then changed the entire concept to what is now known as, the Original Hot Dog Factory in 2015. From his travels, he knew that everybody ate their hot dogs differently, and it was because of this that the savvy entrepreneur understood the assignment —to create a hot dog concept that displayed how every region of the country enjoyed their hot dogs.
“I needed to create a concept that encompasses every region of hot dog specialty in the United States,” McKinley says. “When I went to LA,” he continues, “The hot dogs were like street food and bacon wrapped. Chicago has the Chicago Dog and New York has the Dirty Water Dog because they boil their hot dogs and put sauerkraut and brown mustard on them. So, I said that I have to put all of these [different hot dogs] under one roof.” And that was how the Original Hot Dog Factory concept was born.
Now with 16 locations across the country, a location in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. will be opening soon. Walking into the Original Hot Dog Factory with a wide range of selections, one might feel that they have died and gone to hot dog heaven. The Detroit Coney, which comes with chili, mustard and onions, is their best seller across all 16 stores.
Not a fan of onions? Then try their Carolina Slaw Dog, which is only chili and coleslaw. Or how about the classic All American Hot Dog which is decorated with mustard, ketchup, onions and relish. And if you are more adventurous and cultured, try the Jamaican Jerk Hot Dog. But you can always ask for the massive Chicago Hot Dog, a beef hot dog topped with tomatoes, pickle spears, sport peppers, sweet relish, onions, mustard, celery salt on a poppy seed bun. There’s a hot dog for every wiener lover out there.
If you are interested in being an owner of the Original Hot Dog Factory franchise, all you need is $100,000-$150,000. However, if you are a resident of Virginia, Maryland or California, due to franchise rules, you will not be able to own your own location.
COVID-19, Chef McKinley and Reality TV
As COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the food and beverage industry, the Original Hot Dog Factory was not affected. In fact, when the world shut down, they continued to sell hot dogs. “COVID was really good for us. Hot dogs are already ‘grab and go,’ so while COVID took away the dining aspect, our business took off even more with carry out and delivery,” McKinley says. “So if anything, it made us better because our delivery service took off quickly.”
If you are a patron of the Original Hot Dog Factory, you might wonder why their franks taste so delicious. McKinley shares that he is a trained chef. “Outside of my degree in economics, I am culinary trained as well. We went to the table, and I had a lot of input as to how I wanted our hot dogs to taste,” chef McKinley says. “Ours are on the sweeter side. If someone loves Nathan’s hot dogs, then they will love our proprietary blend at the Original Hot Dog Factory brand.”
Those who are a fan of reality TV, might remember McKinley as a part of “The Housewives of Atlanta.” Although McKinley had only been in business five years before his television debut, the exposure from the Bravo hit show brought new customers to the Original Hot Dog Factory. “We already had a really solid base, especially in Atlanta and were already starting to grow outside of Atlanta and being on the show made people a little more curious to try our brand for the first time,” McKinley says. “I don’t care what kind of pressure you get, good, bad or indifferent; or what network you are on, on radio or TV, it’s all promotion at the end of the day and it all helps.”
What’s Up Dog?
What is next on the horizon for the chefpreneur? McKinley would love to create a soul food concept that will revamp the soul food industry. “We don’t have a soul food concept that we can say, ‘You know, I know how that food is going to taste every time I go there,’ like a KFC or a Popeyes,” McKinley says.
“I am really working on that hard. I think there is an opportunity within our culture to scale a soul food concept, so we will see.” McKinley continues, “Soul food can be so different when you go to Miami, verses Houston, verses DC or Virginia. So, you want to make sure that you make something that is going to be safe and everyone enjoys it because everyone makes their soul food differently from their grandma’s or mom’s recipe. It hasn’t been done before but we’re going to try.”