Eliza 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.
Then 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 know 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).
As 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 considering 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.