At 1514 East Blvd., JJ’s Red Hots occupies “the restaurant that’s haunted.”
The Dilworth property has been home to six restaurants in the past 10 years – one upscale, one seafood, one barbecue, none lasting very long.
Fellow restaurant owners call the area cursed. JJ’s owner and co-founder Jonathan Luther calls it his home base.
As his hot-dog chain nears its second birthday, winning national recognition and aiming to expand, Luther says it’s poised to break the trends of the past.
“When we first moved in here, people told us: ‘You’re not gonna last. Nobody lasts in that space,’ ” said Brandy Newton, director of marketing and brand development for JJ’s.
Beside her, Luther sat back in his booth, shook his head and laughed.
“I don’t believe any of that mumbo-jumbo,” he said. “We ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
JJ’s, named for Luther’s children Jack and Jesse, was honored in May for making Fast Casual’s list of the year’s top 50 restaurants. It finished 43rd on the publication’s annual “Top 100 Movers & Shakers” list and was the only Charlotte-area brand to receive recognition.
Alicia Kelso, a senior editorial director with Fast Casual, said the honor was remarkable for a restaurant as small and as new as JJ’s, which was competing against much bigger names.
“You can look at the fast-casual segment and pick a winner every year based on just sales or unit count, but every year it’s going to be Starbucks or Chipotle or Panera Bread,” Kelso said.
Besides numbers, Kelso said the award looks at who – out of nearly 900 nominees – is using product innovation and creative marketing techniques to make a name for themselves.
“JJ’s, they’re planting a flag where very few flags are planted,” she said. “They have a fun, quirky brand with personality, a big presence on social media, and their followers are rabid.”
Newton’s work with social media has generated an impressive following – more than 1,500 followers on Twitter and 3,100-plus on Facebook. She said the new recognition proves JJ’s can compete alongside bigger brands.
“One day, we can be there with our numbers,” she said. “One day, we can franchise, too.”
A burgeoning market
Fast-casual spots are doing well across the board, Kelso said, growing “exponentially faster than the rest of the restaurant industry.”
From 2012 to 2013, fast-casual sales increased 11 percent, and the number of stores increased 8 percent, according to a report released in April by market research firm Technomic.
The industry is expanding – Technomic estimates it’ll be worth $38.5 billion by the end of 2014. As it grows, Luther said he’s seen his revenues grow, too. He wouldn’t disclose specific numbers, but he said his year-over-year comparative sales show an increase of 30 to 40 percent.
The concept began with about a half-million dollar investment from Luther’s father, a veteran in the industry and his son’s financial partner. With momentum and capital building, Luther said he wants to expand the brand to the far reaches of the Southeast.
Within its fast-casual atmosphere, JJ’s is catering to three huge trends – customization, portability and snacking – that will help foster popularity, Kelso said.
“As consumers, we want something innovative – you can add a bunch of different toppings to a hot dog and call it innovative – and we’re consumers on the go,” she said.
“Plus, sometimes we’re out and we’ll say, ‘Is it lunch? Is it dinner? Well, it’s 3 p.m. – I can have a hot dog.’ ”
Building a brand that’s fun
The atmosphere at JJ’s is both quirky and casual: license plates hanging around the register, a drum-shaped chandelier overhead, a reusable condiment bottle with “OGRE SAUCE” scribbled messily on the side.
But as effortless as it looks, Newton said, it took tremendous effort.
“We’re learning, trying to figure out what exactly our brand is,” she said. “So it’s a lot of attention to detail, a lot of thought into the overall design.”
From the decorations to the management style to the creation of the menu, Luther said he’s always following a two-word mission statement: Create joy.
“We have a good, good time with this brand,” Luther said. “We sell hot dogs. So how can we take ourselves that seriously?”
Creativity peaks when staff members gather to create new menu items. Besides their eight signature dogs, JJ’s offers a “Dog of the Week,” an ever-changing option designed by employees that features different toppings each week.
The most popular specials have made their way onto the permanent menu as “Hall-of-Famers.” The list ranges from the Bird Dog – a veggie hot dog topped with beans, salsa, tortilla strips and cilantro-lime crema – to Wiener the Pooh, which comes with peanut butter, bacon and honey on top. (Add Sriracha and you get a Hog Thai’d.)
“The hot dog is beautiful, because it’s like a blank canvas,” Luther said.
In all aspects, Luther said he tries to maintain an 80-20 balance: 80 percent of things should remain consistent, so customers know what to expect, but 20 percent of it should be changing, to keep them interested.
“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves,” Luther said. “We’re left-brained, right-brained, I don’t know.