The sizzling sounds of success

Entrepreneur parlays hotdog carts into worldwide business

The hotdog pulled Will Hodgskiss from the brink of ruin. In return, Canada’s food-and-drink cart king is bringing the humble fare a higher level of respectability.

In 1989, Hodgskiss was trying to make ends meet selling sofas at a Burlington furniture store when he was inspired by the most unlikely of sources – the store’s resident hotdog vendor.

“I noticed the hotdog guy was doing better than I was”, Hodgkiss said.

Thirteen years later, at the tail end of a remarkable rags-to-riches story, Hodgskiss is the owner of Willy Dog, a colorful Kingston based international hotdog cart franchise. He has operations in New Zealand and Venezuela and is Canada’s largest hotdog cart manufacturer.

How did Hodgkiss do it?

Some insight into the man can be found in his cluttered home office in Kingston’s west end. Hanging on the wall is a framed and time-faded copy of the RCMP’s 1947 motto “The man who never thought he could do anything… never did anything”.

The message came from his father Malcolm Hodgskiss – a boxer who fought his way around the world and then, from nothing, built a small chain of photographic studios.

Hodgskiss was about 20 years old when his dad died, leaving him in charge of his six-store chain, Hodgskiss Studios.

While earning a sociology degree at McMaster University, Hodgskiss added four stores to the chain and turned six into franchises.

In 1985, he sold his share of the business to his sister and began investing in residential real estate.

By the time he was 30, he owned 28 pieces of property, drove a Mercedes and lived in a mansion in a tony Hamilton neighborhood.

It all came crashing down when he guaranteed a loan for a relative that, he said, was never repaid.

He had to take a job selling furniture and sold his assets to cover the debt.

“I bought my first hotdog cart in 1989 while still at the Brick and hired a couple of pretty girls to run it”, Hodgskiss said.

He set up the cart in front of a Canadian Tire store in Hagersville, a village south of Brantford.

Over three years, he bought 15 carts and learned the business the hard way.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, you don’t just set up and people start throwing money at you”, he said.

“Location is crucial and even 10 feet can make the difference between failing and succeeding. The hours you run at – all that stuff can make a difference.”

When the business started making money, Hodgskiss wanted to expand, but staffing was a nightmare – many of the employees the hotdog business attracted were after quick cash and weren’t very responsible or reliable.

Hodgskiss had been successful in franchising the family business and started working on how he could do the same with his hotdog cart business.

“My dad always said, if you’re going to do something, it would be a good idea to be different”, he said.

It appeared as if no one had done anything different in the hotdog vending business for decades.

The steel box hotdog carts hadn’t changed in 75 years. Most owners were independents and their businesses usually weren’t very well run, Hodgskiss said.

Hence the creation of the hotdog shaped hotdog cart. It took him a year and four builders to put together the Willy dog cart, shaped like a colorful, seven foot hotdog.

About this time Hodgskiss, his wife and children moved to Kingston to be closer to his wife’s family.

Drawing upon his experience in franchising the family photo studios and launching his own successful hotdog business, Hodgskiss wrote what he believes are successful franchise rules with the aim of cleaning up the image of the hotdog vendor.

Franchisees pay at least $7500 for a towable Willy Dog cart and franchise. This includes access to a 24-hour helpline, training and set-up, help in finding locations, $2 million in liability insurance, wholesale meat products prepackaged with the Willy Dog name on them, and licensing assistance.

There are strict rules in Willy Dog franchise ownership. Servers must wear the Willy Dog uniform and owners can only sell meat that has been pre-packaged in Willy Dog packaging.

With such an eye-catching image, many of the carts sell themselves to potential franchisers, Hodgskiss said.

“The cart says to people that we take (the hotdog business) seriously and that they stand a pretty good chance of getting a decent product properly prepared from an operator that looks the part, not some scruffy bum who hasn’t shaved for a week and is smoking a cigarette.”

There are Willy Dog franchises in seven countries.

About 18 months ago , Hodgskiss expanded again and began manufacturing and selling New-York style hotdog carts, called the New Yorker, which are made north of Kingston.

The Willy Dog is manufactured in Ontario and both carts are assembled at Hodgkiss’ Kingston warehouse.

He estimates there are about 500 New Yorker in use around the world and that there are about 200 Willy Dog franchisees.

Even though Hodgskiss expects New Yorker sales to double annually for the next few years, he is now working on a new product- a miniature Willy Dog for use in gas stations and convenience stores.

“I’m just warming up”, he said.

“There are a lot of great ideas out there that will make you a millionaire… and when we’ve thought up all the good ideas, we just have to go back and re-invent them”.

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