Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Eliza LucasEliza Lucas is Owner and Operator of Top Dog, an all-American, hot dog and fried clam shop based in Rockport, Massachusetts. She shared with Career 2.0 the story of how this small business got its start.

Very few people would think of opening a hot dog stand as a “get-rich-quick” scheme. And indeed it isn’t. But looking back, it was the best decision my husband, Scott, and I ever made.

It was 2001 and we were living in the metro Boston area. Scott, who had just been laid off at his tech startup, was working as a disc jockey on Boston radio and I was video producer, but we both knew we wanted to do something else. We had always hoped to move to the North Shore (coast of Massachusetts) because it seemed like the ideal place to raise a family, and I wanted to offer my children something like what I had when I spent my summers there as a child.

We settled on Rockport, MA  – an idyllic place with a great school system. My grandmother had owned a shop there while I was growing up and Scott and I had often kicked around the idea of doing something similar. But opening a shop on Bearskin Neck was a dream that, frankly, we never thought would come true.

Top DogThen we had a major stroke of luck … the Portside Chowder House restaurant, at the time a Rockport staple, changed locations and their old spot on Bearskin Neck became available. If we had known back then just how hard it would be to get our little hot dog shop off the ground, we likely never would have taken such a gigantic gamble. The building needed to be totally gutted, we weren’t married yet we were taking this huge life-step together. We had no plan and no money.

Minor details – we dove in!

What we did have was a belief – one that has served us well ever since. We were sure we didn’t need to come up with some sort of spectacular breakthrough product in order to have a successful business. We believed in the idea of glorifying something basic. That is to say, you can take something simple and if you do it really well, customers will appreciate it and they will come back for more. Bearskin Neck didn’t have a hot dog stand at the time, there was a building available, and Top Dog was born thanks to a loan from the local small-business-friendly bank, Rockport National Bank (now part of Institution for Savings).

Everyone has heard that tired old phrase “if I’d known then what I know now,” but I’m being completely serious when I say that the only reason we did this was because we were young and naive. Top Dog has grown every year that we’ve been in business. However I think every new business owner underestimates just how long it will take before you start seeing actual results. We couldn’t afford any additional help, so either Scott or I had to work the restaurant at all times.

Looking back, that may have actually been the secret to our success. Because we did everything ourselves, we kept total quality control over our product. We Scott Lucasknow now that a hot dog stand on Bearskin Neck was a pretty good idea. But it would never have worked out if our food had been mediocre. We don’t just sell hot dogs – we sell really good hot dogs! With effort, and no other options, we somehow succeeded in making the ordinary extraordinary.

However, the second Top Dog actually started to grow, we faced a new challenge. We are a seasonal business and, once we could actually afford help, we had a hard time finding it. As soon as we got staff trained it was time to close shop for the winter. It was a vicious cycle that really frustrated us early on.

It was then that we found even more reasons to be thankful that we’re based in Rockport. People have a real attachment to this town, and they quickly grew to love Top Dog. We were shocked by how much everyone genuinely wanted us to succeed. A lot of people in the Rockport business community had laughed at the idea of a hot dog stand, but they also were always willing to lend us anything we were running out of and were legitimately interested in our success. I vividly recall talking to Kenny Porter of Roy Moore Lobster Co. in our first year in business and, when I mentioned that we would be competitors, he simply said he didn’t look at it that way and was more concerned with having as many high quality establishments in town as possible (though he later told me he thought we’d be gone in a year!).

We struggled at first, but we were eventually able to build a part-time employee network, comprised of people who even today are always willing to drop everything and help us when we need them. We still have a cook who comes in at any time. And one of our girls has been coming back every summer for ten years (this will be her last, as she’s graduating from college).

Top Dog TeamAs we’ve established ourselves, we’ve been able to slowly branch out, and now we constantly tweak our offerings to suit our changing customer base. We began selling clams in 2008 – we couldn’t afford to be one dimensional, plus we had to add a more expensive price point because, if every sale were a hot dog, we’d have had to up the foot traffic through the restaurant to a level that wasn’t feasible. We do well off the tourist market, but we also do our best to cater to the locals (99 cent hot dog night is still something we do mostly for the local crowd, as it’s very much an “in the know” event).

I don’t know if there ever was, or ever will be, an “aha” moment where we’ll suddenly decide we made it. But we were named Best Fried Clams on the Northshore by Northshore Magazine in 2014 (and again in 2015!), which put our clams on the map. But more importantly every week of the summer someone stands up and says “that was the best ___ I’ve ever had.” That’s really what keeps us going. If it weren’t for accolades like that, we’d have both quit a long time ago.

After nearly 15 years in business, Top Dog is still growing. We’ve brought it to a point now where Scott runs the restaurant and I run the business. We’re even Top Dog Fried Clamsconsidering opening a second location. But we would only do it if we could run it ourselves, because the quality of our food is really what’s made us successful. Even now that we’ve grown, we make our own tartar sauce and source the highest quality local clams and lobsters.

We started out with the idea of glorifying something basic, and that remains the foundation of Top Dog today.

With Love and Quiches: A Housewife’s Journey to the Boardroom

quiche2I started my bakery business, Love and Quiches Gourmet, in my home kitchen in 1973, purely by accident, from just one quiche. I was a clueless suburban housewife with no preparation whatsoever for business ownership. My only qualification was my passion for everything and anything connected to food. I was a very good cook, famous for it in my neighborhood, and my friends traded invitations to my dinner parties.

So when my original partner (a carpool friend and another great cook) suggested we do something, I was game. We had my house licensed as a Food Processing Plant (can’t be done anymore, but this was 42 years ago) and were ready for business. We had no plan, we simply started. (more…)

Carolyne Kauser-Abbott: Mapping Her Way to Personal Fulfillment

Carolyne Kauser AbbottAny active foodies hooked on travelling out there longing for a stroll through Aix-en-Provence and a great bowl of Daube Provençal? Montreal-born Carolyne Kauser-Abbott has got something for you. The former project and operations management specialist has launched her own food and travel blog that dips into cultural traditions and the history of cuisine around the world. And in case you get lost while on location or are just looking for some local hidden gems, she’s also created an App to guide your way.

An economics graduate of Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario, Kauser-Abbott took her first job as a runner on the floor of the Toronto stock exchange. She moved “upstairs” to become an equity trader for Wood Gundy (now CIBC Wood Gundy) and worked in the stock market for about five years, trading through the 1987 crash and pocketing what she refers to as “some great learning moments”. (more…)

Chef Hollie Greene: From Human Resources to Healthy Hearts

Hollie GreeneChef Hollie Greene makes a mean cornmeal-crusted sautéed okra. And she is pretty sure she can teach you how to too and convince your finicky vegetable-phobic 8-year-old to try it and even love it. “Have you ever seen the delight in a child’s eyes when they discover they love a blanched green bean or a stuffed zucchini boat? It’s magic. That’s what I love doing most, unleashing the joy in exploring fruits and vegetables for kids and their parents.  I don’t start with a ‘get healthy’ objective. I start with joy. Good health and feeling great from what you eat is a natural outcome.”

Fresh out of grad school and armed with an undergrad degree and Masters in Human Resources (HR) from the University of South Carolina, Greene was recruited by Citigroup to join their management trainee program, which promised her a global rotation in HR. The fluent French speaker and lover-of-all-things-foreign was first posted to NYC but quickly transitioned to São Paolo, Brazil, where she worked on various projects. “I appreciated that CitiGroup sent me to a place where I didn’t speak the language. I had to learn very fast and rely on other skills. It stretched me to be out of my comfort zone. If you are worried about being an expert all the time, you lose a lot of learning opportunities. I embraced the idea of fitting in but I also learned patience and how to adapt to a different way of thinking. Brazil taught me you don’t have to stress about everything all the time to get things done. There are times to stress but most of the time, really, everything is going to be tudo bem. You’ll end up a lot less tired if you can take on this way of living.”

After a year in Brazil, Greene returned to NYC where she was a HR business partner, overseeing offshore banking investments for non-resident aliens for one-and-a-half years. After 9/11, her partner had trouble finding work so they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where Greene worked in pharmaceutical sales for a year. “I quickly learned it wasn’t for me. I really missed HR. I had always been more of a consultant as people were asking me for ways to improve their business.”

So when Citibank re-recruited her for a position in its regional office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Greene jumped. The bank even went as far as to help her then husband find a job, kind of a “two-for-one special”.

After seven years with CitiGroup, Greene moved to competitor American Express in South Florida, which was known for its leadership development program at the time. On a professional level, everything was going great. On a personal level, the situation was far from ideal. She and her husband decided to part ways. It was a life change for her: “It’s something that shifts you. You’re going along and everything’s fine and then something happens. For me it was the personal relationship not working out. My planned trajectory hit a bump in the road.”

Free to make her own decisions and finally do something she has always dreamed of, Greene went on a cooking vacation alone to Tuscany, Italy, in late October. Staying just outside the idyllic town of Lucca, she cooked from 10-1 every day in the kitchen of the 15th century estate and toured the countryside in the afternoon. Being immersed in the experience was therapeutic. Greene recalls, “There is something about getting your hands into food, it’s very healing. In a corporate setting you are using your mind a lot but in the kitchen, you take something from a raw ingredient and you working with it to create this beautiful outcome that gives people a lot of pleasure.”

The return journey to the US was nothing short of disastrous. Stuck at Pisa airport for 24-hours and again in Milan for even longer, Greene used the time to write in her journal. The trip had triggered some self-doubt about whether she was on the right path. She made a list of what she could do in life, what she is good at and what she liked. “It dawned on me that everyone on the trip had been in their late 50s and 60s and yet it was the first time they had experienced extremely simple healthy cooking that was delicious. I kept coming back to the same thing. I teach people leadership development, I connect them with information to improve their lives. Why couldn’t I do this with children? Why couldn’t I teach kids about the joy of understanding what a balanced relationship with food is like. It’s as simple as that. When you are in that place in your life where it could go any which way, you are just crazy enough to think of the possibilities. You are open to change.”

Greene had been with Amex for only one year, so it was with some trepidation that the then-33-year-old approached her manager, Janice Carulli, to tell her what she wanted to do: “I know this is not your problem, but this is just what I have got to do. I need to make a change. I’m going to move to NY and attend culinary school and I’d love to stay with Amex so if I could get a transfer to our NY office, that would be great. And if you can’t help me, I understand but then we need to start talking about my departure.” A 20-year veteran of Amex, not missing a beat, Carulli replied, “Hollie, most people at some point in their life will say ‘I wish I had done X’. If this is something you really want to do and I can help you in any way, then I really want to help you.” True to her word, she rang the NY office and – serendipitously – there was a position open in leadership development.

Within three months of her trip to Tuscany, Greene was in NY with Amex. Two months later she started 9-months of night classes at the French Culinary Institute. It was pretty grueling, but she loved it, “I worked 45-50 hours a week and then headed off to culinary class around 5.30 and stayed until 11.30. It was very physically demanding but I thrived on the intensity in the kitchen. Once you find your tribe of where you are supposed to be, you will take off. Yes, you have to cook dishes over and over again until they are perfect but unlike business, where you talk circles around the elephant in the room, in cooking this is not possible. You learn by making mistakes. You may have a good night or a bad night in the kitchen but you know where you stand.”

With no plans to be a restaurant chef, Greene took her newly minted skills to the not-for-profit world and volunteered with the Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools while she still continued to work Amex. “Amex was exceptional. They wanted employees to give back to the community so were very supportive of the work I was doing in afterschool programs. There was no risk for me personally in doing this work, I just wanted to grow myself as a person.”

Blueberry and peach crumble from Joyfoodly
Blueberry and peach crumble from Joyfoodly

But then the magic happened! When teaching her first class of inner city kids about cooking with fruits and vegetables, Greene was amazed at their enthusiasm. “They absorbed it like sponges. Even if they didn’t like the food it didn’t matter because they were having fun in the kitchen, having a positive experience. It was really fulfilling to be giving them a window into this new world, helping them to see fruits and vegetables in a new way. Planting that seed of possibility.”

As her volunteer work became more serious, the non-profits offered her paid hours as Education Director at the Sylvia Center and a school chef at Wellness. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse despite Amex dangling the potential of a promotion. “The universe was really tempting me, but I told Amex I really needed to do it and it was now or never. I had to explore this path and see if this was my true calling. I figured I’d give it a year and I could always go back to the corporate world if it didn’t work—like a year-long anthropological study of me!” So she resigned.

The move from corporate banking to non-profit was most definitely a step back financially but she had savings and her partner to support her, “Up to that point, I had always been the breadwinner and so definitely it was very scary to take that step to the side – but it was calculated risk. But I am very thankful I made that move. I’ve never been happier.”

After a few years, Greene and her husband moved to San Francisco for his job and Greene had to rebuild her community. “The best way to meet people and build you base is to get involved! I consulted with some non-profits as a chef to improve nutrition in schools and with families at home for about a year.”.

Last year, she started writing a food blog, Joyfoodly, targeted at parents to promote eating seasonal fruits and vegetables throughout the year. But importantly she didn’t want it to be a pet project and toyed with turning it into a business. So she hired a business consultant, Stella Grizont, founder of Woopaah and former co-managing director of Ladies Who Launch, to map out her brand identity and spent six months doing lots of research to uncover the biggest “pain points” around food in our country today. After many surveys and lots of brainstorming, Greene hosted an ideation session with parents, community thought leaders, and educators.

“I didn’t want to take something and just do it better. I really wanted to fill a need,” she explains. “A couple of themes emerged, the first being that their children’s health is the number one priority for parents, they want to feed their kids well even if the culture doesn’t support children eating healthily. They also lack the time and the skill to put healthy and tasty meals together quickly. I thought ‘I know how to teach kids how to love fruits and vegetables, I’m good at it.’ So my plan centered around engaging kids in ways parents would not necessarily think about and sharing my simple yet proven techniques both in cooking and exciting kids to love trying new foods.”

Because Greene’s key goals in launching JoyFoodly had been to make learning how to cook fruits and veg easy and fun but also economical and readily accessible to a wide audience, a tech solution seemed the best way to go in terms of scale and ease of use. Greene’s Creative Director, Michelle Venetucci-Harvey brought the design perspective and together they developed a prototype of the Joyful12™ concept last Fall at the San Francisco Food Hackathon.

joyful12-logo-blackAn online Kitchen Learning Lab, the Joyful12 is a web-based cooking crash course for families that teaches them how to love cooking and eating 12 vegetables and fruits each season. A members-only site, it features video tutorials with Greene, allergen-and-gluten-free recipes, a time-saving shopping list generator, and a community forum to share successes and challenges with like-minded parents.

“Everyone can learn the basics of cooking fruits and vegetables and when you ask your kids to be part of the cooking process, that’s when they start to feel confident to explain how to make the food better…or at least taste better from their perspective. The Joyful12 is a self-paced course that guides you through each season and, depending on your constraints, let’s you try basic-to-adventurous recipes of in-season items. I believe it’s brings together the best of what’s out there in a unique and family-friendly way. It really is a true learning lab.”

The learning lab has been live for less than a month but subscribers are growing and Greene has created partnerships with companies like WholeFoods.

Potato-and-Leek-Soup-hi-res
Potato and leek soup from Joyfoodly

“We’re trying to do it the right way. Spring and Summer are built and I’m working on Fall and Winter. Basically I’m building the train and the tracks as I go along.” But it’s going well. Although all the recipes are gluten-free, she has hired Chef Annie Rose Hanrahan, a Natural Gourmet Institute graduate and former Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools colleague, to re-test her recipes keeping an eye out for vegan, nut, and egg issues and to ensure any potential allergens are highlighted and substitutes are offered.

“I always look back at what I learned in culinary school. You learn by failing and clearly everything hasn’t been perfect, but I trust my instinct,” Greene says. “I’m surrounded by great people, people who stand by me, believe in what I’m doing, people who open doors for me. But I’m still learning, I have to have a lot of patience with myself. I still have that thread within me that wants it perfect today and wants it yesterday. That’s my journey … patience. If the intent of what I’m trying to do is good and the intent is for people to have a more balanced and enjoyable relationship with fruits and vegetable then it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in its own time.”

You can sign-up for the Joyful 12 here and learn how to make a subscriber favorite: Japanese roasted green beans with a sriracha mayo dipping sauce.

Tips from Chef Hollie Greene

  • Figure out your value, don’t undersell yourself.
  • Believe in your intent, keep your head down and do the work: you’ve got to be in it for the long game.
  • When you do your own thing there are no checks and balances so be sure you have the support around you to give you a reality check.
  • Keep going because you have to complete the story!