March 7, 2005
The great hot dog gamble
Northern N.J. frankfurter king builds $1.3M. stand in
By MARTIN DeANGELIS Staff Writer, (609) 272-7237,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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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