Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
James Woodin and his brother, Thomas, saw opportunity in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Their new business, Serious Dogs, operates out of a trailer that the brothers stripped and rebuilt to accommodate the ovens, grills, pots, and pans that they use to cook and top their hot dogs.
While some may have seen this as the worst possible time to start a new venture, the brothers forged ahead because they had the time to devote to equipping the trailer that serves as their kitchen and travel to different locations where they set up shop to sell their dogs.
James Woodin was furloughed from his job with the Marriott Hotels shortly after the pandemic hit the United States and his brother, who lives in Battle Creek, quit his job as a train conductor with Canadian National Railway Company to focus full time on the new business.
James Woodin, left, and his brother, Thomas, in front of their food trailer.
“We had the idea a few years ago and the concept has been in the works for about that long,” says James Woodin. “We bought the trailer in February of this year, about one month before everything shut down.”
On July 4 they officially opened Serious Dogs LLC, based in Battle Creek, which is taking the ordinary hot dog to new gastronomic levels. Customers can choose from combinations that include the Seattle Dog topped with cream cheese, sauerkraut, and onions; the Tom Dog (named for Thomas Woodin) topped with shredded pepper jack cheese, chili, jalapeno peppers, and sour cream; or the current favorite among customers, the Bacon and Cheese Dog, garnished with bacon, barbeque sauce, and cheese.
For the less adventurous the brothers are happy to create the basic chili dog or hot dog with ketchup or mustard or even a plain dog. James Woodin says they have eight different specialty combinations to choose from, but he says the buns they use are what really set his 100 percent Angus beef dogs apart from other hot dog purveyors.
“We special-order our buns from a place in Chicago. You can’t get them anywhere else,” he says. “We prepare them similar to the buns used in Lobster Rolls by splitting them, buttering both sides and placing them on the grill so customers get a little bit of crunch when they bite into them.”
he bacon and cheese dog, left, is a current customer favorite. The tater tot dog is at right.
The buns they use are larger than the average bun to accommodate the hot dogs which each weigh just under a quarter of a pound. There are french fries too, but the hot dogs are what is bringing customers to the trailer window.
The brothers settled on Serious Dogs as the name of their business because they kept referring to the size of the hot dogs as “serious.”
“I think it’s hard for people to imagine what our hot dogs look like and when they see them, they’re shocked at how large they are,” James Woodin says. “We top it to the hills and you have to hold it in your hands to fully realize what it is.”
They settled on hot dogs because it’s a comfort food that most everyone can relate to.
“My background is in the hotel business with a little bit of experience in food and beverage and my brother, none at all, but we said food is a good thing to think about,” James Woodin says. “We are not chefs and we wanted to do something within our wheelhouse because we’re not chefs.”
Their entry into the local food scene took the form of a pop-up event at a former used car lot on the corner of Dickman and Helmer roads.
“We had a lot of people we knew who came out and we also had a handful of people we didn’t know for that first event,” James Woodin says. “It was concerning because we had a lot of money invested and knew we would be delayed getting started because of the shutdowns. We had capital sunk in almost immediately and my brother had just left his other job to pursue this fulltime. His and his family’s savings were pretty much depleted.”
Since that initial foray, they have since been participating in Food Truck Friday events in Battle Creek and also have been at the Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Fridays in the city’s downtown district and at a space they rent where Beadle Lake Road and Main Street meet.
They will travel to Portage this week for an event there that will feature different local food trucks and in September have events lined up in Ionia and Indianapolis, Ind.
“We heard specifically what a terrible time it was to start, but it hasn’t slowed us down too much,” says James Woodin, who lives in Detroit and has been commuting back and forth to Battle Creek to help run the business. “We were kind of lucky with the trailer aspect because there is no indoor seating to worry about and people know they can social distance and sit safely outside and eat their hot dogs.”
The brothers bring a few folding tables and chairs for customers to use if they want to sit and eat.
The outdoor dining option is appealing to some people, especially given the ongoing specter of COVID-19 and the need to mask-up and social distance, says Brigette Leach, Secretary/Treasurer of the Battle Creek Farmers Market. She says she thinks Serious Dogs has done a good job of getting established.
“Food trucks seem to be an attractive alternative to sit-down restaurants for a certain segment of the population. People just like the idea that they can walk up, order something and eat it right there,” Leach says. “Owners of food trucks in this area have gotten very creative about where they can set up and sell.”
This includes industrial parks that don’t have on-site eating options and limited off-site eating options. Leach, who owns Avalon Farms
in Climax with her husband and daughter, says during a trip last year to Austin, Texas, she saw food trucks with very different menu options, some of which were located in specific or permanent locations to make it easier for people to find them.
The Food Truck Industry developed much earlier in locales like Austin where the climate allows for pretty much year-round operation of the mobile eateries. Leach says she doesn’t know if there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of food truck purveyors locally but says there has been an increase in the number of food truck rallies.
Festival Market Square where the Battle Creek's Farmers Market and Food Truck rallies are held was limited to the number of Food Trucks or trailers it could hold because of its size and the closure of Jackson Street.
Although the street has since re-opened, she says there still isn’t enough room for the number of food truck owners who want to be there to sell their fare.
Leach goes on to say the number of food trucks has been low on Farmers Market days this year because large employers like Kellogg have their employees working remotely. However, she says some purveyors like Red Line BBQ have been doing business at the Farmers Market “like clockwork” since May.
“For food trucks, the lunchtime crowd is their bread and butter. A lot of food has to be prepped ahead of time,” Leach says. “If you prep for 200 and get 50, that’s a big loss.
“A lot of it depends on their resources and their ability to participate. We’re at about half of the usual number of vendors and in that same range customer-wise. They’re all trying to keep their businesses open until things rebound.”
Leach knows her way around food trucks. Last Spring, she and her family decided to jump into the food truck business with the purchase of a trailer to take to area farmers markets, using it to prepare and sell soups and salads made with fruits and vegetables grown on about 15 acres of their 900-acre farm. The farm was started in 1932 by her in-laws.
Unlike the Woodins who did not have much previous experience, Leach and her daughter have worked in restaurants and food is very important to them. "Our world revolves around food...literally and figuratively. It's what we do." She says they were looking for another revenue stream to augment sales from their Community Supported Agriculture program, a small store that they operate, and business they do with area restaurants.
“We stuck our toe in the water last September. It took forever to get the inspection done so we could start, some of it was our fault and some of it was the regulatory agencies,” Leach says.
Their soup and salad offerings soon morphed into sandwiches and they had to figure out what would sell well at area farmers markets. Recently, the Leachs launched a lunch menu at Gull Lake Distilling in Galesburg which does not have a food facility.
Out of their trailer, they have been making dishes like eggs over easy with vegetable hash and toast, avocado toast, and biscuits.
If you’re not an aggressive marketer, Leach says, operating a food truck can be a challenging business.
“It’s hard work and not as lucrative as many people perceive it to be,” she says. “I’m expecting that (the Woodins) did a lot more market research than we did. We didn’t invest nearly as much as they did. Food trucks are crazy expensive and for us, it was, ‘Let’s see if we can make this work.’”
“When we can manage it we get to the Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Fridays,” Leach says. “We’re struggling to keep employees at the farm, not necessarily the food truck. Some of them are going back to college and we have one who’s taking driver’s education. I suspect that maybe other food trucks have similar issues if they need to hire other help.”
Employees are on the Woodins checklist of things to do next. James Woodin says he and his brother were interviewing prospective employees on Monday and Tuesday to fill two full-time positions. Their current full-time staff includes James, his brother, and his wife.
“We have more than 600 followers on our Facebook page
and have been very, very busy,” James Woodin says. “It’s been very steady and we hear time and again from people that ‘my mom’ or ‘my sister’ sent me out here.
“It’s kind of crazy. We kind of already had a lot of stuff in place. The margins seem to be tight, what we’re seeing, in reality, is that margins are good enough and this business is growing and continues to grow by word-of-mouth.”
As the invitations to various events continue to increase, the Woodins are looking ahead at ways to grow their business, including a brick and mortar location in Battle Creek, taking their trailer south in the winter months to operate their business, and adding more trailers. They may add more cold sides in the future.
“Other than these ideas we really want to keep focused on the dogs,” James Woodin says.