March 7, 2005



The great hot dog gamble

Northern N.J. frankfurter king builds $1.3M. stand in A.C.

By MARTIN DeANGELIS Staff Writer, (609) 272-7237, E-Mail

ATLANTIC CITY - Every now and then, Steve Hodell gets an urge for one of his favorite hot dogs. And Hodell doesn't let the facts that he lives in Rhode Island and his favorite hot-dog joint is four hours away, in Fair Lawn, N.J., stop him from heading for Johnny & Hange's Jersey Style Hot Texas Wieners.

Phil Grosso, who owns Johnny & Hange's, knows he can't count on that kind of loyalty from all his customers. But Grosso is confident enough in his dogs' reputation and potential that he's betting $1.3 million on them being Atlantic City's next hot ticket when he starts selling them here later this month.

Grosso is opening a place at California and Atlantic avenues that will be the only Johnny & Hange's outside that Bergen County mother ship. By the way, the second word in the name is pronounced variously as HAN-jeez (as in "hand") or HAYN-jeez (as in "Hanes," the underwear). And it's punctuated sometimes with an apostrophe - as on the sign over the new front door - and sometimes without, as on the sign just inside that door.

However you say it, or write it, Grosso didn't skimp when he decided to expand a business that he bought in 1998, but that originally opened in Paterson in 1939. He bought his Atlantic City property, which includes room for a 22-spot parking lot, for about $600,000, and he's put another $700,000 into a brand-new, 50-seat, brick-and-glass building and all the shiny equipment he'll use to cook and serve his food.

That's the $1.79 hot dogs that are the staple of his menu, although ordering a dog "all the way" - with mustard, onions and a meaty chili sauce - bumps the check up to $2.09. He has other choices, like burgers and seven kinds of fries and chicken and even salads, but when people talk about Johnny & Hange's, they're talking about the dogs.

Oh, now one thing about these dogs that might surprise anybody who comes from anywhere but Johnny & Hange's home turf in northern New Jersey - a region that one connoisseur calls the hot-dog capital of the world: They're deep fried.

"If you can't think of anything worse for you than a hot dog, then stick it in a deep-fryer and I guarantee you, it'll be a little worse for you," says Keith Furlong, who works with Catania Consulting in Bergen County now but who spent a lot of time in Atlantic City in his five years with the state's Division of Gaming Enforcement. "But you can go to Johnny & Hange's any day and you'll see a line of people in there."

Furlong admits to enjoying the deep-fried dogs himself, although he prefers the version at the Goffle Grill in Hawthorne, while other dog devotees from the area swear by a few dozen more places that are serious about their hot dogs. But Furlong agrees with Hodell - who grew up in Hawthorne before he moved to Rhode Island and is strictly a Johnny & Hange's man - that this northern hot-dog culture has somehow never made it down to southern New Jersey.

Hodell spent two summers living in Cape May and working in Wildwood. And even though he's known around his Bank of America office as "Hot Dog Boy," he's never found a hot dog worth a second thought - let alone a four-hour drive - anywhere near here. In fact, when he's on one of our local boardwalks, Hot Dog Boy goes for pizza instead.

All of which could qualify the Atlantic City area as an untapped market for the serious hot-dog set, which could make Phil Grosso a visionary, or at least a rich man. But Grosso knows enough hot-dog history to know that others have tried to export the deep-fried magic, and they've failed. And he knows other out-of-towners have tried to import their reputations to Atlantic City, and they've failed too. Think of Pat's Steaks, the South Philadelphia institution that came to Atlantic Avenue in 2000 and closed by 2003.

Grosso, who knows Atlantic City because he has a summer place in Brigantine, diagnoses Pat's problem as a lack of inside seating - just a window and some picnic-style tables that weren't much of a draw in the cold-weather months.

As for his expenses, he looked at other locations, but didn't want to rent or to convert an old building. And when it got to money, he says, most sellers were "talking telephone numbers" anyway, meaning they were asking for seven-figure prices.

So he built and he spent, all on "a two-dollar business," he says. "And I'm old enough to tell you that I might be wrong. ... If you do mediocre, if you only do a thousand bucks a day (sales), then even $100,000 is too much to spend."

But Grosso likes a lot about his new spot.

"You need the congestion," he says, waving out to a street crowded with cars and sidewalks crowded with people. Then there are his neighbors, among them a bus stop, a fire station and the city's police headquarters.

"We're going for that everyday thing," he says. "People who come here don't have to be tourists. They don't have to be the guy with a lot of money in his pocket."

Holly Moore is a former Philadelphia restaurant owner and reviewer turned Internet food guru - he runs a Web site that details his down-home eating adventures, broken up into categories including "The Hot Dog Page" and "Eating Jersey Dogs." And even though he calls northern New Jersey the world's hot-dog capital, and he's a Johnny & Hange's admirer, he agrees that Grosso is taking his chances coming to Atlantic City.

Then again, Moore also agrees that it's hard to find a decent hot dog in Atlantic City, or in Philadelphia; he suspects that's because people in these parts care much more about cheesesteaks and hoagies, or subs, as they're called in his favorite shore place. So when he heard about Johnny & Hange's coming here, Moore says, "My thought was, I'd get a couple of Texas wieners to tide me over while I'm standing in line at the White House."

But seriously, folks, this new spot opening will give Moore a new reason to come to Atlantic City. And Hodell says he'll definitely visit his hot-dog Holy Grail here - he hopes on opening day - and bring a stack of Johnny & Hange's dogs home with him, as required by an unwritten but unbreakable family law.

Grosso loves those hard-core hot-dog fans. But he knows that what will make or break him will be his congestion clientele, the people who live in town and work in town and visit the town itself, not just come chasing a deep-fried dog fix.

"This," he says, sitting in his $1.3 million place, under his $1.79 menu, "is a little bit of a gamble."

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