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.

Leslie Fishlock: The Geek on a Mission to Take the Terror out of Technology

Leslie Fishlock Geek Girls

Leslie Fishlock is an unrepentant geek and self-declared rabble-rouser who loves nothing more than to disrupt.

Questioning her tactics for getting more women into tech, a smug woman once criticized her for “teaching old ladies how to open PDFs.” She was far off base in terms of what Fishlock and her organization Geek Girl is actually doing, but the 50-year-old founder admits if that’s what it takes to help them understand technology, then she’s all for it.

“She totally missed the concept that if you don’t start somewhere learning how to do things for yourself, you’re never going to get into more advanced fields like aerospace or engineering. Maybe I’m not training astronauts of the future but I certainly am making technology accessible.” (more…)

Carrie McIndoe: A Passion for Creating Opportunity

Carrie-McIndoe-head-shotCarrie McIndoe read a great quote once and, although she doesn’t know who said it or if she’s even quoting it right, it spoke profoundly to her: “‘Savor the time you spend with the people you love and on the parts of your life that matter the most, so much so that it makes you so happy you could dance in the street.’”

After a long career in strategic business planning and financing for start-ups, McIndoe is living those words as the founder of Economic Ventures, a not-for-profit dedicated to entrepreneurship. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons, many the hard way, and want to share these to help others transform their lives. I can’t imagine doing anything better.” (more…)

Elizabeth Rice: Real Women Wear Toolbelts

liz in her glory  Elizabeth Rice’s fundraising page opens with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world but in being able to remake ourselves.” Rice has done her bit to remake the world. But true to those words, the real challenge is her own reinvention. After the sudden loss of her brother in the prime of his life and 13 failed fertility treatments, cycling solo more than 300 miles to support Habitat for Humanity and raise money to go to carpentry school is no sweat for the determined Rice.

Born and bred in Massachusetts, the cheerfully optimistic Rice has construction and carpentry genes coursing through her veins. Union men both, her father was a millwright and her late brother a carpenter. Rice spent her teenage years working at her uncles’ construction company in Abington. “It was scut work mostly. I hauled trash, cleaned out after jobs and painted fences, but I enjoyed the physical labor and being outdoors.”

Although she had an interest in the family business, Rice’s personality leaned more towards helping people than hammering nails. Trading in one accent for another, she left Quincy, Mass, for the Bronx, NY, where she studied sociology at Fordham University. Throughout her college years, Rice volunteered at numerous HIV/AIDS efforts and when she graduated, she signed up for her first of several AIDS charity bike rides between NY and Boston. “The first was the best. Doing that ride made me realize I am capable of things I never thought I could do,” she remembers.

Moving back to Massachusetts, Rice worked as a personal care assistant for a man with end-stage AIDS during the day and at night worked at a home for brain-injured adolescents. Somewhere along the way, she decided to return to school to get a Masters degree in clinical social work, this time from NYU. Getting her crazy out and notching up the car-dodging skills she would need for a life on the bike, she worked as a bike messenger to support herself while in graduate school.

After NYU, Rice returned to Massachusetts to work for several years in community health centers, primarily with people who were homeless, HIV+, and had substance abuse problems. “ I loved my job, but I had a yearning to work outside doing something more physical. So I turned to small carpentry projects as a hobby to fulfill that need. There is nothing better than the smell of freshly cut wood,” she adds.

Then unexpectedly in 2007, Rice’s 37-year-old brother, Derek, died from a suspected heart attack. “It was devastating because it came as a total shock. It made me realize how fragile life is. You’re here one day, the next you’re gone. I started to question if I was happy enough. Did I love my job? Did I want to do this for the rest of my life?” she recalls.

VT carpentry schoolDriven by grief tinged with doubt, Rice headed to the Boston Carpentry Union and applied to be a Union Apprentice. “The next step would have been to go out and find on-the-job training, but fear got the best of me and I didn’t follow up with the opportunity.” At that time she also met with the Admissions Director of North Bennet Street, a craft and trade school in Boston, to look into their carpentry programs. But having recently completed social work school, Rice decided not to apply. “I wanted to make sure my desire to do carpentry was not too strongly influenced by grief over my brother.”

She packed away her dreams and moved jobs to Adcare hospital in 2008, where, to this day, she counsels people with substance abuse problems. Feeling guilty about her inability to make the leap, Rice took up various carpentry courses to keep up her skills and alleviate any regret. A highlight during that time was a 1-week Yestermorrow women in carpentry class in Waitsfield, Vermont. “ I gained so much confidence in such a short period of time. Two highly accomplished women carpenters were mentoring us, and we even built a shed.” Rice loved the course, but returned to Massachusetts and remained in her career.

Three years later, in the midst of a serious relationship, Rice began trying to get pregnant, a journey that eventually led to multiple infertility treatments. “I tried everything I could to have a baby. I exercised, changed my diet, and thought of nothing else. We went through multiple IUIs and IVFs. To say it took a toll on my emotions is a huge understatement. It consumed me for three years.” But never one to walk away from a challenge, Rice was determined and kept at it – a total of 13 times.

10325295_10203048628489609_7791261639915265744_nNeeding an outlet for the intensity of the treatments combined with her emotionally taxing job of helping addicts, Rice turned again to carpentry. “It all started with an idea of refinishing an old table. Feeling accomplished, I moved on to building a workbench, shelves, and even our queen-size bed frame.  I transformed our former office into a workroom and hung photos of my brother Derek on the wall. Using his old tools and listening to the music he loved, I felt a connection with him and the sadness and helplessness I had been feeling started to lift. I felt transformed.”

With that change, came the realization that she was not entirely happy with her job and that perhaps it was time to take another shot at carpentry. So in the fall of 2013, Rice decided to go part-time at Adcare, doing social work at night and dog-walking during the day to have some time to think about her next move. “The dog-walking gave me a break to stop and think about what I wanted. I was in nature, feeling good, and getting clarity about my life.”

Rice picked up the pace and started taking more carpentry workshops. She surfed YouTube to watch videos on how to use nail guns and routers. “My friends and family were great. For my 40th birthday, all I got were tools and gift cards from Lowes and Home Depot! Everyone was very supportive.”

In her research on possible schools, Rice found herself taking a fresh look at North Bennet Street. It piqued her interest that the founder, a woman, had started the school to provide immigrants new to Boston the foundation to find work and support themselves. “It was the perfect fit. I went for an info session and fell in love. The student body was diverse in terms of gender and the type of carpentry classes offered was a step above the unnamed (3)standard.” North Bennet Street offers the only preservation carpentry program in the country.

Fueled by her love of antiques and all things old, Rice applied for the 2-year program. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d get in, but I didn’t want that to stop me from applying,” she laughs. On the first of this year, she sent off her application, one of more than 100 applicants for only 13 slots.

“I got the letter on March 10th. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the day before we found out that my last pregnancy attempt had failed. One door closes, another opens. Well there it was, the directions were laid out in front of me, I didn’t know which way I was going to turn but now it seemed the path was clear.”

The path may have crystallized but Rice still has to come up with the tuition. Three years of ongoing fertility treatment had left Rice and her partner financially drained. Despite some financial aid, loans, and the National Association of Women In Construction Founders’ Scholarship, Rice is still $15,000 short (and that’s for the first year).

Brainstorming on how to raise the funds, she thought about crowdfunding sites like YouCaring. “I always did fundraising for others so it didn’t sit well with me to focus on myself. I had to do something to earn it.” Having volunteered for Habitat for Humanity when in college, Rice reached out to her local Habitat affiliate and agreed to donate 20% of all proceeds to the home-building NGO. “Now I don’t have to feel guilty. I can raise money for a social good and myself,” she explains.

Inspired by the charity rides she has done in the past, Rice decided she would bicycle from her apartment in Quincy, Mass, to New York City to prove her commitment to attending North Bennet Street School and raise money.  Although she has ridden between Boston and New York before, Rice’s “Bike-to-Build” campaign is a solo effort without the emotional and physical support of others cyclists or spectators. “When I came up with the idea, I hadn’t sat on my bike for a year or so, and I didn’t think about all the work I’d have to do to make this fundraiser happen. But I’m a girl, and girls can do anything,” she laughs.

You can follow Rice on her entertaining blog as she shares the highs and lows of training and even touches on her personal journey with infertility.

And if you believe Rice deserves a break, donate to her cause.

Some tips from Elizabeth Rice’s blog and motivators that keep her going:

  • Don’t give up no matter how bad things may seem
  • It is easier to let go and accept than to try to control and resist
  • You did enough, have enough, and are enough
  • As long as your heart is beating, you can learn and try something new
  • 40 is to be savored, not feared
  • When the mind is not weighed down with struggles and stress, it can accomplish great things
  • Service to others takes my mind off of me.