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Emerging Brands

How a former Raising Cane’s exec came out of semi-retirement to get a hot dog chain on track

Dat Dog CEO Paul Tuennerman is using his next act to prepare the emerging brand for nationwide growth.
Dat Dog
Photograph courtesy of Dat Dog

Buzzworthy Brands

Buzzworthy Brands is a weekly Restaurant Business feature highlighting innovative growth brands that operators should keep an eye on. A fresh Buzzworthy Brands profile will be published each Thursday.

The concept: Dat Dog

The details: A four-unit, New Orleans-based upscale fast-casual concept specializing in gourmet hot dogs with about 30 different toppings.

The backstory: The first Dat Dog opened in 2011. The company began selling franchises, but when former Raising Cane’s executive Paul Tuennerman joined the organization in 2018, he realized the chain had some major financial problems, so he dialed back the franchising program and made a number of changes at Dat Dog. Tuennerman started at Raising Cane’s when the chicken chain had 39 units and left as senior vice president of development, responsible for all domestic and Middle Eastern franchising.

Why it’s worth watching: After a couple of years of change, Dat Dog is getting ready to grow. One franchisee is working on a unit in Houston, and Tuennerman has his eye on growing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Florida Panhandle. The chain has a new prototype designed, with units running about 2,000 to 2,500 square feet.

HERE ARE FIVE GROWTH-MINDED QUESTIONS WITH DAT DOG CEO PAUL TUENNERMAN: 

  1. You mentioned that the company was losing money before you joined in February 2018. What are some of the things you’ve done to steer Dat Dog on a better path?

We kind of unwound things. We’ve changed the culture. We’ve fixed the financials. We’ve been profitable the last two years. I negotiated a deal on fries and reduced costs 25%. … I had to right-size the organization, from 15 [employees] down to six. … I did the normal things an established chain would do, but that a mom and pop operation wouldn’t even know how to do. We’ve developed a training manual. We’ve designed our first-ever prototype. What I’ve been doing the last two years is getting it ready for growth.

  1. Dat Dog has plant-based sausages alongside alligator, crawfish, Italian and other sausage varieties. Have those always been on the menu?

Those are brand new. They account for almost 11% of our sales. In 2019, we were recognized by PETA for our spicy chipotle plant-based sausage. … The most ingenious thing I did when I started right-sizing the organization was I started hiring people who were our customers. We have a lot of millennials, sprinkled with a few hipsters. I’ve really let them drive that program. They’ve indicated, “Hey, this is kind of important. We think we should do this and we think we should get really good at it,” and we have.

  1. Does Dat Dog do much off-premise business?

New Orleans is a festival town. We do pretty significant off-site business. Because of our size, we’re nimble. We can move quickly, and we can make decisions and do things on the fly. We often do a lot of themed dogs for those kinds of events. We have a food truck, but a lot of these things, the volume is so big we’ll set up in tents. Some of our restaurants are on parade routes during Mardi Gras. … We’ll narrow down our menu so we can handle the volume. We call them “speedie weenies.” Some restaurants will do more business in an afternoon then they will in their best week.

  1. Your menu has some curated hot dogs plus 30-some toppings for customization. Is that a challenge operationally?

We’ve been developing that and trying to refine it as it comes along. It’s sort of evolved over time. It can be pretty daunting, and part of our speed issue is that a lot of customers will stand at the point of sale, look up at the menu, and be like, “Holy cow. Where do I start?” We’ll make a recommendation. We have a chef’s choice. Our crew members, they tend to have “their dog.” If you ask me for a chef’s special, I say alligator sausage, Chicago-style. I love a good Chicago dog. When you put an alligator sausage in it, it makes a Chicago dog way better. … We recently redid our menu boards. We moved some dogs around. Now, the Chicago dog is our best-selling hot dog because people tend to see it first.

  1. Do you have any regrets about getting back into restaurants?

I have a lot of old colleagues that’ll say, “What the heck are you doing?” I work with some great people. Our trailing 12-month turnover is sub-60%. We have very loyal people I work with. They love what they do. I had an opportunity to come in and fix an organization. I could’ve fixed it, and when it was fixed, I could’ve said, “OK. I’m gone.” … Along with growth comes opportunity. I get up in the a.m. I come to work for them. I get to wear Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops. We’re a very relaxed concept. We have a very relaxed corporate culture. When I first came in … I had to take some extra measure to earn everybody’s trust. I had to tweak the culture. We were very top-down driven. We weren’t very operator-centric. I started cleaning bathrooms and taking out the trash. I tell people, “If you’re going to clean bathrooms and take out trash as the CEO, make sure people see you doing it. Otherwise, it has no impact.” They know, “He’s here to help us. He’s on our team.”

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