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.

Marlo Scott: The Sweetest Revenge is Just Being Happy

Marlo Scott

Everyone’s job stinks from time to time, but if you find absolutely no joy in what you do then it’s time to get out. Some of us are lucky and can do this sooner rather than later but others, like Marlo Scott, bide their time, planning and preparing for the day when they can bust out of the toxic work environment once and for all.

“I spent seven years in a hostile industry. The media business is full of bully bosses, but this was only fuel for me to figure out how to work for myself. When I was passed over for a promotion that I should have gotten, I swore I would get my sweet revenge on my bad boss. It was only a matter of when.” (more…)

Srirupa Dasgupta: Giving the Gift of Work, Food, and a Little Perspective

SrirupaDasguptaSrirupa Dasgupta admits she rarely listens to other people. Well, to be fair, she listens to what other people say and then makes her own decisions. The Bengali Indian is a doer, that much is clear. But her story is not what you expect. The force behind this tenacious woman who has sported many career hats is a desire to live her values and invest in her beliefs. For Dasgupta, working with and developing people is her life’s goal, and she is prepared to sacrifice more than most of us to make this a reality.

Born in Calcutta, India, Dasgupta first came to the United States to study at Smith College, with only an aunt to her name far away in California. She double-majored in computer science and studio art, two seemingly unrelated fields. “Being Indian, I was told I need to do something practical and majoring arts was not going to cut it so I did computer science, which was up and coming. But really it made sense, I was drawn to the problem solving and elegant algorithms.”

Fresh out of college she became a programmer analyst for a decision-support software provider for the healthcare industry. After four years and looking for something more interesting, she moved from application and systems development to a management role. For the next 15 years, Dasgupta held various management positions in the software industry, rotating from managing R&D teams and call centers, to developing strategic partnerships and consulting services for different blue-chip companies in Massachusetts and California.

In the lead up to the tech bubble burst, Dasgupta started thinking about changing careers. “I had worked the entire lifecycle of the software product, done the whole rotation. I wanted to do something new and fresh.” With much foresight, she launched into a 1-year Integral Coach® training and certification program while still working at Lucent Technologies. “In all of my management positions, what I loved best was working with people, setting a vision and creating opportunities for them to excel and advance in their career … coaching seemed like a good fit.”

In a-not-unwelcome turn-of-events, Dasgupta was laid off from her job in 2002. Well prepared when she got the news, she put all her energies into finishing the coaching certification program. “The training was really aligned with my interests. The methodology takes an integrated approach to the multi-dimensional individual, we looked at the whole person, cognitive, and physical, and the cultural, social and environmental context in which they find themselves. All of these are critical components of coaching, the end goal of which is not to solve the problem, but rather develop the person.”

She started her own coaching practice shortly thereafter. “Even though I had a lot of experience in business, being a small business owner was really different … the first year was a lot of learning-by-doing. I found it difficult to promote myself, attending events and generating leads was challenging.” But not one to shy away from a challenge and noticing she was not alone in her discomfort for business networking, she started a blog to coach herself and others, which led to a book on the subject entitled Effortless Networking.

In fact these evolving career transitions have become a theme and pattern in Dasgupta’s life. As she explains: “Most of us set a goal and move towards it. It’s a linear task. But training as a coach introduced me to another option … it’s called improvisation. You have a map, you know how you will get there, but on route life throws you curveballs. I try to keep my goal in focus but adapt along the way. Coaching has taught me to look at the opportunities that arise and use them to propel me towards my objective rather than seeing them as a distraction.”

After the birth of her second child in 2006, she decided to put her practice on hold as the family relocated to Ohio and finally Pennsylvania for work. For about two years, Dasgupta didn’t actively seek out clients. When she began to think about working again, she found herself at a crossroads. “Should I restart my business? Do something different? Take a salaried position?” she wondered. While thinking about all the possible options, a digital communications and marketing position opened up at nearby Franklin & Marshall College. Although she has been working there for six years and it’s interesting work, Dasgupta admits, her passion lies in working with people.

And so comes the next transition or, more precisely, expression of who she is. Attending an event where Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was speaking, Dasgupta was intrigued by the idea that one can create a for-profit business with the intention of solving a social problem. As an entrepreneur, her interest was piqued and she started to look around for inspiration while doing her day job at F&M.

upohar2Dasgupta learned about the refugee population in Lancaster City and felt a connection. Her own family had been refugees from Bangladesh and she had grown up with stories about how difficult it was to start over in India. At the height of the economic crisis, it was tough for refugees to find work. For the women, it was close to impossible. Thinking about how she could create jobs for these Bhutanese, Iraqi and other female refugees, Dasgupta hit upon the idea of  starting a catering business. “These women may not be able to speak English but they can cook!” she realized.

She found a commercial kitchen that rented space on an hourly basis and worked with about four women, who – for practical, mostly language, reasons – cooked what they knew. The enterprising Dasgupta launched the ethnic catering business as a proof-of-concept to see whether she could use a for-profit business model to hire women who otherwise could not find a job, whether the women could do the work, and whether she could pay a living wage.

“All of this was hypothetical. On paper, everything looked great but usually the problems you anticipate are not the ones that show up,” she recalls. “During the first year, I learned all kinds of things and hurdles emerged where I never expected them.”

Apart from the language barrier, a key issue was that the refugees are on welfare. When they get a job, their benefits are cut. But as the catering upohar3business is erratic … one day they may get a gig, the next day not. So the irregularity of income wreaked havoc with the calculation of women’s welfare benefits. “Sometimes they had cash, sometimes they didn’t. It was almost easier not to work!” Dasgupta stopped hiring new employees and tried to stabilize the hours of those she already worked with but the problem persisted.

And so, making a decision that no one in their right mind facing a similar challenge would make, this past March, after three years of solely catering, she opened a restaurant. Entirely self-funded and managed all while still working a full-time job in F&M, this remarkable woman is determined to make a go of it. Upohar (which translates to gift in Bengali) opened its doors for lunch and takeout only and offers catering services. Dasgupta’s right-hand man, Stephen, does the deliveries, inventory, and shopping and her staff of five cook and run the show. Dasgupta breaks even but pays for the advertising and marketing campaigns out of her own pocket. She has yet to give herself a paycheck. She is hoping each month she will generate enough revenue to pay her staff and the rent for the following month. So far, so good!

Why all the risk and stress? “I was called to do it. It was the only way I could generate steady employment for these women. Upohar was conceived as a gift for employees, who get the opportunity to work, a gift to the community to try all these new different foods, and a gift to myself. Through working with these women who are starting over, working hard to rebuild their lives from scratch, I have been given the gift of perspective. My problems don’t seem that big anymore.”

And so Dasgupta takes it one day at a time. She now hires not just refugees but also disadvantaged women from shelters. She is hopeful that Upohar will become a place where people come not only come to enjoy the food but also to appreciate all that they have by meeting those who make the food and who have overcome great challenges.

If you are ever in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, explore the world through food and visit Upohar.

Believe in Srirupa Dasgupta’s work and want to support her efforts? You can make a donation at http://www.upoharethniccuisines.com/contact-us/support-us/

Srirupa Dasgupta’s Tips for Success:

  • Ask for help. No one does anything alone. Acknowledge your strengths and find help in areas that are not part of your skillset.
  • Pay attention to your gut reactions and your behavior (what you actually do, versus what you think you do or want to do) – to different situations, events, and people – and use this information in your decision-making process.
  • Know your limits so you can set and maintain your boundaries. This can help you focus on what matters most and avoid over-extending yourself.

Discussion

Have you ever considered putting your career where your heart is by creating a social enterprise?