Looking back, Matt Sielsky might have become one of those tragic small-town sports heroes – the talented high school player who coulda been something more, if only …
But Sielsky – a teen racing phenom whose NASCAR dreams sputtered – was too talented a businessman to let that happen.
He now sells more than 100,000 hot dogs a year in the Charlotte area and is set to bust out into the big time, if all goes well. Burgers are a close second at his two Matt's Chicago Dog locations, the flagship in Cornelius and the second in uptown.
Raised in Chicago, Sielsky moved to Charlotte to train on a NASCAR team. At 17, he had won a national contest to be Kool cigarette brands driver and planned to work his way up to the big time. He beat the likes of Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish.
But after several pitfalls, including severe restrictions placed on cigarettes in the sports sponsorships, he called his family for advice. “I was in Charlotte, out of a ride.”
He and his mom came up with the Chicago dog concept. The partners opened the first store in 2002 and a year later the uptown location, which is usually packed at lunchtime with a loyal following. The whole family moved down, and his father started a successful custom cabinet-making business.
Sielsky said all the food for the 80 different menu items is shipped from Chicago, which has its own regional style for fixin' up dogs. That style is heavy on peppers, onions and relish. You can also order a Carolina dog, the more familiar chili-and-slaw creation.
The 30-year-old plans to start working on his undergraduate degree this year in his spare time and he and wife Christine are expecting their first child.
Matt's Chicago Dog is on the verge of selling franchises to selected operators.
The Observer spoke with the businessman about hot dogs, racing and the secret to his success. The questions and comments were edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Sometimes the effect of franchising is to hurt quality. How do you guard against that?
A lot of the franchise/quality issue is when someone takes over an entire territory and opens up a dozen stores. That person can't be at every location. We want owner-operators. who'll get to know the customers just like I do. We're looking for good fits. Right now, we have more franchisees ready to go than we are prepared to approve.
Q. What about the racing experience informed running a restaurant?
The only thing that really applies is that you have to have grit and determination and hard work to succeed in either, especially in a business that has a 90 percent failure rate in the first year. To get to the top in racing is one of the most impossible things to do.
Q. What was the toughest time in starting this business?
It came in 2005. We were at a crossroads. I'm running one store and my mother's running the other. We know we have a good concept but have to expand. You just have to know who to trust.
It's one of the reasons we're still around because 10 percent of our business isn't walking out of the back door. I know hundreds, if not thousands, of my customers on a first-name basis. We have a solid 30 people who eat at our restaurant five days a week. I don't think I could do it.
Q. Have you seen an uptick in this down economy of people looking for an affordable lunch?
Business has been strong and a lot of that is because places all over uptown, where lunch is $12 or $15, I think they're seeing business decline. People come into our place, and they can have a meal for $7. Maybe we see regular customers one day less a week. Now is the time to really focus on customer service. It's a fact in this economy that people are going to be eating out less.
Q. How do you keep employees?
We pay decent, that's always key. But we treat them with respect.
Our employees work as a team, we build them up. I get them to do their job and construct the food like it's an art. Every once in a while you get a bad apple, and you have to zap it quick or it'll spread.
As hard as it is to succeed in the restaurant business, it's not rocket science, but it is logic. If you start out with the best thing, it's hard to screw it up. You just have to keep it great.