Where there’s a Willy Dog, there’s a way

Visions come in all shapes and sizes in the hot dog business

If you think hot dog vendors are overweight guys who sell hot dogs because they don’t have the education, training or language skills for a “better” job, think again.

Will R. Hodgskiss, president of Willy dog, is reinventing the hot dog vending business.

Willy Dog is high efficiency, high visibility, and high profitability. The business operation is just as revolutionary as the cart.

In the late 1980’s Hodgskiss was working in a furniture store in Hamilton. Other than a brief stint picking tobacco, the furniture store job was the only time in Hodgskiss’ life that he had worked for someone else. His father had owned a chain of photography shops in Hamilton and Toronto, so he had first hand experience with running a business while growing up and attending university.

Hodgskiss also owned a number of apartments with a partner. When his partner was unable to keep up his share of the financing, Hodgskiss scrambled to find some way of generating extra cash so he wouldn’t lose the real estate he had accumulated. He bought a hot dog cart.

As Hodgskiss puts it, “Desperation is the mother of invention”.

As a marketing tactic he “hired two good looking staff to run the cart”. The venture was successful. Willy Dog was incorporated and began expanding. Within a year Hodgskiss was no longer selling furniture. In fact, he got quite a kick out of pulling a Willy dog cart behind his Mercedes.

Over the next 5 years Hodgskiss bought another dozen hot dog carts. At first he used “the standard silver box on wheels” and the carts were operated by employees. “It was a logistical nightmare, trying to monitor operating times, cleanliness and cash at the different locations”.

Hodgskiss felt there had to be a better approach to the hot dog vending business, so he began experimenting with ways to improve the cart and the business structure.

First, he envisioned something much more appealing than the standard silver cart. He began drawing sketches of his own design for a more eye-catching and functional hot dog cart, and began the long hunt for trades people to do the metal work and fiberglass shell.

Second, Hodgskiss is an entrepreneur at heart, not a manager. He decided the best way to expand the business would be to sell franchises. In effect, each cart could be a separate small business, operated by its owner. Hodgskiss explains that his “franchises are owned by people who realize the only security they’ll get comes from themselves”.

Willy Dog currently has 106 franchises located in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, British Columbia and California. The first Alberta location will open this summer.

Last year Hodgskiss received about 1000 inquiries each month about how to buy a franchise. He had to stop advertising to slow down the flow of queries. Most of his franchises are sold to existing owners or employees of existing franchises.

The cart itself is, indeed, eye catching. It would be hard to miss a red eight-foot hot dog with a sunshine yellow bun. The cart is fully self-contained with hot and cold water, BBQ, cold drink storage, bun storage, and built-in propane storage. The BBQ runs on propane but the cooking area can be modified to run on electricity for indoor use. The stainless steel and fiberglass construction is designed to give years of service. The cart exceeds health, fire and gas standards, and it can be towed on the highway. Willy Dog has also designed a separate beverage cooler cart that can be towed behind the hot dog cart.

To ensure that the business is profitable, Willy dog chooses the franchise locations. They have enough in-house statistics to know the likely profitability of a location. For an annual fee, Willy Dog provides a profit package, which includes a 24-hour 1-800 help line, on-site training and set-up for new owners and new employees, liability insurance, all start-up accessories, licensing assistance, operator’s profit manual, regular newsletters, special events referral service, contests, “and much, much more”.

Health and life insurance are currently being discussed. Talk about a whole new perspective on the life of a hot dog vendor!

Willy Dog provides each new franchisee with “everything from a crash course in business accounting to the plastic forks”. In other words, Willy Dog wants its franchise owners to be successful. “Everyone has to be happy, or no one is happy”.

An important part of the equation, of course, is ensuring that the customers are happy. Hodgskiss wanted to ensure consistent quality at Willy Dog franchises so he has developed and produces private label hot dogs and sausages. The hot dogs and sausages are vacuum-packed and delivered to the individual franchises. In fact, Willy Dog franchises sell only Willy Dog brand hot dogs and sausages. In some locations, they also sell vegetarian hot dogs.

A few times each year, Hodgskiss recruits sidewalk volunteers for taste tests, just to make sure that people still prefer the Willy Dog brand over the major competitors. Hodgskiss strives to offer “the right price, right packaging, right quality so that franchisees and customers won’t but elsewhere”.

Willy Dog also sets up the franchises with local wholesalers for the other products and supplies that they require. This includes condiments and plastic utensils. Paper products carry the Willy Dog logo, and must be purchased from a central source.

When the cart is fully loaded, it can accommodate enough products and supplies to generate about $1500 income. An average location will gross approximately $1000 weekly and net $650 weekly, after all expenses. That is, based on 33 hours per week, an average take home income of $650.

Get out your calculator. $19.70 per hour for serving hot dogs at an “average” location.

The starting price for a franchise is $7,498 plus tax. Anyone who has looked into buying a franchise will recognize immediately that the price alone places Willy dog in a class of its own. Willy Dog is an affordable franchise.

The franchise purchase price includes everything you need to get started, including the cart, umbrella, knives, forks, tongs, trays, uniforms, advertising, BBQ, utensils, and other necessary supplies. There is even a mirror inside a storage door so the vendor can regularly check their appearance. The franchise owner only needs to purchase the food products, which will be delivered at start-up.

The hot dog cart includes cold drink storage, but busy sites often need additional storage. Willy Dog has designed an optional pop can cooler that can be purchased by the franchise owners for $2498 plus tax. The distinctive cooler looks like a giant pop can and is just as eye-catching as the hot dog cart.

The franchises can be purchased for the full amount up front, or if you qualify or have a co-signer who qualifies, Willy dog has rent to own plans starting at about $300 per month. Royalties to Willy dog are based on the volume of the location, and range from $40 to $2000 per month. The average is $100 per month.

Vending licenses from municipalities cost anywhere from zero to $300 annually and Willy dog will help new franchises with the paperwork. The franchise owner is responsible for paying the licensing fees. Vendors can move their carts as often as they want, as long as that is permitted by the vending license.

Franchise owners are free to sell their franchises, but the new owner must be approved by Willy Dog.

Hodgskiss is frequently asked two questions. First, “Why don’t I just buy the cart and do it myself?” His response is “Go ahead if you like, but a new cart costs more, has no accessories, no location, and isn’t a Willy Dog. We are asked to take over these spots all the time”.

To the other frequent question, “What’s the catch?” Hodgskiss answers “There is none. We do our own manufacturing and had plenty of time to iron out the rough spots and save you money”.

Basically, Hodgskiss has “structured the business in such a way that it is easier to follow my method than not to”. With an average annual income of $25,000 for a seasonal location, and some franchises generating six-digit incomes, Willy Dog franchise owners appear to be in agreement.

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