Would you pay $8 for a hot dog? Patrick Yuan, owner of the new Tower Dogs restaurant thinks you will once you try the offerings of Tower Dogs, the “fast casual” restaurant opening in the Town Center shopping center on Quakerbridge Road in Lawrenceville.
The offerings of Tower Dogs are unlike those that come off the grill on the Fourth of July. Its flagship menu item, the tower dog, comes on a toasted roll, is wrapped in bacon, slathered with spicy brown mustard and cheese sauce, and covered in onion and chopped waffle fries. The Tower Dog headlines a roster of specialty dogs with gourmet ingredients that are seldom found on the humble sausage.
The ambitions for Tower Dogs go beyond just being a hot dog stand. Yuan’s plan is to do for hot dogs what Starbucks did for coffee: take what was once a lowly menu item, improve the quality, and use it as the foundation for nothing less than a food empire.
Yuan teamed up with chef Jim Forkel to create the restaurant, which comes paired with a food truck that has been a common sight in parking lots over the last few months. The Tower Dogs concept goes back to the Tower Club, one of Princeton’s 11 eating clubs, where Forkel is the manager and head chef. If Yuan’s plan comes to fruition, in the future, Tower Dogs restaurants will be everywhere.
Forkel is the creative force behind Tower Dogs, but Yuan is the business mastermind.
He grew up in Ohio, where his father was an engineer for CMP Corporation, a maker of compressors. A Princeton graduate (1992) and 16-year Wall Street finance wonk, Yuan has worked with derivatives and complex financial instruments for a more than a decade and now has his own consulting business. He considers Tower Dogs a fun side venture and a “labor of love,” but he has put extensive market research into the planning of his new enterprise. Yuan believes people will indeed pay $8 for a hot dog — but only if it’s a really great hot dog.
“I modeled the restaurant after all the successful fast casual restaurants, be it Chipotle or Shake Shack,” he said. “They don’t skimp on the quality of the food because once you do that you lose your audience. Therefore our price point is a bit higher than fast food, but we are within industry norms and all of our margins are industry standard.”
After all, if gourmet hamburgers can be a thing, why not gourmet hot dogs? Tower’s 100 percent beef, no-filler dogs are specially made by a butcher in California.
The story of Tower Dogs goes back 25 years, when Yuan became chairman of the graduate board of the Tower Club. One of his first moves was to improve the quality of the food from frozen cafeteria-grade fare by bringing in Forkel, who insisted on using fresh bread and other ingredients. “At first it was tough because everything was more expensive, but people really responded to it,” Yuan said. “They wasted a lot less food.”
One of Forkel’s signature dishes at Tower Club was the hot dog. “For Jim the hot dog was something he could do a lot of crazy innovative things with. He started doing it for fun at the club, and people kept ordering it over and over again. He made this whole line of hot dogs at the club.”
Students began telling Forkel he should “start his own restaurant,” Yuan said. The suggestions finally got to Forkel last year. He not only joined Yuan in launching the Tower Dogs restaurant, but created a food truck as well. Both are connected to the Tower Club by name, and Yuan recruited many student club workers to staff the new venture, but the two entities are entirely separate organizations.
Of course Forkel makes a lot of foods other than hot dogs, but to Yuan, there was a strong business case for specializing in them. “Everybody does a burger. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a burger joint,” he said. “Hot dog consumption, according the National Hot Dog Council, has been rising for the last 10 years … it’s how we stand out. There really are no gourmet hot dog places in this area.”
There are in fact a few competitors, including a New York chain called Haute Dogs, and a single location New Brunswick bar/restaurant called Destination Dogs, but Yuan isn’t worried that the market for hot dogs is anywhere near saturated.
The food truck, which has operated for several months, has given Yuan proof that the public is hungry for hot dogs. He said the mobile hot dog vendor has proven very popular and has even begun to attract a fan base. While it was parked in Robbinsville, one boy visited the truck for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the same day. “Kids love the idea,” he said. “I think it captures their imagination.”
The food truck, which Tower Dogs converted from a 17-foot U-Haul, is part of Yuan’s business plan for the restaurant as it expands. He plans to pair each new Tower Dogs location with its own food truck that will expand the restaurant’s reach and serve as mobile marketing. And he does plan to expand: though he only has one location so far, Yuan is thinking ahead, and his business cards give his title as “Hot Dog King of the East Coast.”
The permanent location opened in mid-June, strategically located down the street from the new Costco on Quakerbridge Road. A grand opening is planned for July, at which time the 16-item menu will expand to a full 50 items, including burgers, chicken tenders, and various specialty hot dogs.
The restaurant already had regular customers the day after it opened. Ray Dukes stopped by for lunch with a coworker. He said it was his second visit. “I haven’t had hot dogs in 10 years, but these guys brought me back to dogs. Especially the California Dog,” he said.
Tower Dogs, 4110 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrenceville 08648. 609-269-9056. Patrick Yuan, owner. www.tower-dogs.com.