Full disclosure: I love hot dogs. My father is also a fan, so they were ever-present in my house growing up. And as a college student with limited funds, cooking knowledge, and creativity, they were my go-to meal, paired with 50-cent knock-off mustard.
But as I got older and became more aware of nutrition and culinary capabilities, they slowly dropped from my diet, except rare moments at a sporting event.
Fuller disclosure: My first meal upon moving to New Orleans wasn’t a po’boy; it was a hot dog. At Dat Dog. And it wasn’t even a legit hot dog; it was the “Sea Dog,” beer-battered cod, fried to light and crispy perfection. After driving for 10 hours straight from Dallas, I was more than pleased.
Upon walking into the Dat Dog on Magazine Street to meet Victoria “Vickie” VerHagen, the Marketing Director of Dat Dog, and taking in the vibrant colors, the laid-back vibe of the employees whose only uniform requirement is a Hawaiian shirt, and the signs at the entrance that directed me to “Put a smile on your face!” and “Embrace your bliss!”, I questioned if it was too good to be true.
“I started working at Dat Dog to learn how to bartend and fell in love with the brand,” Vickie tells me, reflecting on her start at the hot dog shack turned successful chain and how she progressed from cook to Marketing Director in under four years--quite an accomplishment for a 27-year-old (one I especially admire as a fellow 27-year-old whose LinkedIn hasn’t been updated for two years).
Vickie’s casual demeanor matches her appearance: a T-shirt with cats flying on hot dogs in space, a septum piercing, tattoos on both arms, and Chuck-style shoes; she’s a quintessential millennial. When I asked her what makes this place so special, she said, “It’s the freedom to be yourself; as an artist, that was important to me.” Vickie graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which appears to be a common thread amongst the employees.
“We’re all artists,” Laurie, the Marketing Manager, tells me, adding that “[Dat Dog] is really creative; it has a great spirit.” Laurie’s rise to working in the “corporate” office mirrors Vickie’s: She started off managing the art market at the Magazine location on Saturday afternoons, starting helping out with marketing, and eventually evolved into the position.
Laurie had come to ask Vickie a question about the design for their newest side: mac n’ cheese. Her inspiration for the illustration stems from the 1996 R&B classic “Return of the Mack,” which despite both of her their attempts to sing for me, I failed to recognize. “We’re always making puns,” said Vickie, followed by a laugh.
There's a lot of laughter during my interview, between Vickie, me, and other coworkers who dropped in and out of our conversation. The energy really does feel light-hearted here, but still I look for the holes, because I’ve worked enough service industry jobs to know there are always holes.
So I inquire further about how Dat Dog achieves such a chill environment. “It’s organic; it’s the people we’ve attracted,” Vickie tells me. “Going into a shift, it’s like meeting up with your friends, and you happen to be working.”
This “it’s like hanging out with friends” comment has been reiterated by Laurie (also known as the “helper squirrel”), Krystal in HR whose secondary title is “cat herder,” and Tyler working the bar. I simultaneously soften to the idea of this being a cool place to work while growing more skeptical.
Then I start asking the hard questions, like Vickie’s favorite hot dog. And shockingly enough, despite eating meat, she says the Italian vegetarian. “But if we’re going with meat, the secret duck special, which isn’t so secret.” This “secret” duck special is apparently one of the multiple creations by employees, including the Bacon Werewolf and the current brisket special.
“People get really passionate about what goes on a hot dog. What can go on it? Anything!” Macque choux, etouffee, alligator, a turkducken dog for Thanksgiving--nothing’s off the table.
With three locations in New Orleans, one in Lafayette, and three franchise locations planned to open in fall of this year in Baton Rouge, College Station, and Rice University, I wondered how Dat Dog planned to maintain that “local hot dog joint vibe” it prides itself on.
“We encourage our franchise partners to have relationships with local organizations, to engage the community,” such as they’ve done here with organizations like Son of a Saint, Zeus’ Place, and New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. Vickie mentions authenticity, that “uniquely New Orleans or College Station or Baton Rouge vibe. It has to do with the atmosphere, the food we cook, the people who work here.”
“It’s a feeling,” Vickie explains further. “That feeling of getting away from it all to have a good meal with good people. The feeling you get with food from childhood that your parents gave you and cut up in mac n’ cheese. The hot dog can grow with you, from beef dog with ketchup to crawfish and etouffee.” With this comment, it becomes clear how she evolved to marketing director.
With the approach of Tyler, rocking a white Hawaiian shirt thematically littered with hot dogs, burgers, shakes, and fries, unbuttoned just enough to show off his Rolling Stones tattoo as a Stones song coincidentally plays over the speaker and with dollars pinned to it to note it’s his birthday, I allow myself to fully give into the idea that this really is a chill place to work. “This is the best job I’ve ever had, marginally so,” Tyler tells me, reflecting on his two and a half years at Dat Dog. “The people, the atmosphere--I feel comfortable here.”
As the hot dog revolution continues on and Dat Dog expands, I hope it’s able to maintain that “neighborhood hangout feel.” And as I bite into the duck dog special, which comes with a blackberry sauce that genuinely warms my soul a bit, I get a sense of that bliss the sign at the front’s talking about.
As for Vickie and her hopes for Dat Dog’s future: “I would like someone else who just got out of art school to work in the kitchen and get the same opportunities as me.” Now I can get down with dat.