Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down with chefs and owners of bars and restaurants celebrating their first anniversary.
Skip Murray is one half of the ownership team at the popular Freret Street hot dog and sausage shop Dat Dog. Owned by Murray and his old high school friend (and retired US attorney) Constantine Georges, Dat Dog has already established itself as a central player on the increasingly popular Freret Street scene. Georges and Murray have been so successful at the sausage shop, in fact, that they've already begun plans to move to a larger space across the street.
A native of New Orleans who lived in the UK for 27 years, Murray told us the story of how he went from being a regular American consulting with upmarket restaurants in London to being known as the "Hot Dog Guy." (He called this the short version, which means the long version could probably fill a book.) But after getting that background, we chatted about Dat Dog's surprising popularity and success through the last year and his plans to use their spot on Freret to promote a more walkable, town center-like area on the street.
So how's it going? Still hurting from Mardi Gras?
Oh, no no. You mean physically? No, this staff sees Mardi Gras as a time to join in the festivities like everyone else, so we kind of bounced through Mardi Gras as a part of Mardi Gras. It's very liberal how we dress, so, you know, "Can I come in costume?" Of course you can. And they do. I don't get the costumes, but they do. The only requirements are that we're going to wear something Hawaiian or something colorful. Because that's who we are.
And that's really easy to do during Mardi Gras.
Absolutely. Strange as [the costumes] can be, that works, too. That's our staff. Our staff's average age is 23, but I have great staff. Really great staff, I really do.
So going back to Dat Dog's roots, you were in the UK for a long time, right?
27 years, I was in the UK. I was on my way to Baton Rouge on the bus and ended up in London. So I was in the UK for 27 years, I was working for an American company. I'm gonna make this short, because I've done this story so many times.
I believe it. The short version's fine.
I played baseball in high school, I was born in this town and played baseball and football at a very famous school called St Barth High. It no longer exists, but in this city we connect the dots by high school, forget college.
So I'm in the UK, I brought my softball mitt and for the first three years I was throwing the ball up in the air, 'cause they play cricket and football [soccer] is religion. And so there was just me by myself. So one day, in 1994, right before the advent of the internet, they used to have a message and bulletin board in Redhill Library, which is out in Surrey. It said, "Wanted: Women players for a softball team." I thought, shit. I called the girl and told her that I was kind of a girly-guy if they needed me to dress up and she said, "Oh my, dear me. No no no, there's an organized league for men, this is a women's league only." So she gave me the contact number and I joined this very, very famous men's softball team. And at the end of every small, 8 team tournament, about 80 people, they'd always have a group dinner. So it'd be a curry, a Chinese takeaway, an Indian takeaway. So one specific year, because I was the only Yank, they said, "Well what would we have at an American baseball game?" And I said, uh, hot dogs and beer. And they said, "Great, will you organize it?"
Well there aren't any frickin' hot dogs in the UK. They're all in tins, something to do with the war, I don't know which war. So I get these frankfurters from Germany, and hot dog buns came from Euro Disney, because they have American things. So I set up with a table, with a camping stove and Cajun seasonings because I'm from Louisiana. So I've got these frankfurters in there steaming away, the buns are here, cheese, onion, mustard, ketchup and chili, and then an Igloo ice chest with beer, and I went and played softball all day long. Then in the twists and turns of life's rich tapestry, I get a call from a guy named Bob Harper, from Major League Baseball International in New York City, who said, "Sir, we need you for the Little League World Series. We need your hot dog company." I said, "Bob, there is nothing, there is no company." But a friend of mine who had a company that made security sheds, we built a box, it had stainless steel on it and I said, "Throw an umbrella on it." So I thought I could be in the hot dog business for a day. [...] And before I knew it I was at all the Baseball Softball UK tournaments. I quit my job and all of a sudden I was the Hot Dog Guy.
So at what point did you look into coming home and becoming the Hot Dog Guy here?
Katrina, it was Katrina. I have a house uptown, a family home, so I thought, okay, I'm gonna be returning here often, because I'm gonna be dealing with insurance people. You're not in good hands with All-State, that's my new ad. Builders are gonna do building things, and next thing I know I'm coming back often. And I thought well, maybe I can do Mardi Gras. I'll buy a hot dog stand and put it out on the street. I knew that was going to be?New Orleans is unique, it's a love-hate thing with me, the things I love I truly love, the things I hate I really hate. But it has a happy ending, we got it done. We finally got through the maze [of City Hall] and figured out how you get stuff done here.
Was this Mardi Gras 2006?
Yeah, Mardi Gras '06. And things went well enough. Then I was back in the UK, but Katrina made me reconnect with people I hadn't seen in 30 years, and they said, "Well have you seen Freret?" And the last time I was on Freret, was when Bill Long was alive and he got shot and that was the demise of Freret Street. I came down and thought, for crying out loud it's decaying. And then I saw this building and I thought, that's New Orleans, and what we do is so not New Orleans, but if I could find a way to combine the two.
And what was this building before?
It was a shed that housed junk. It's been many things through the years, this building was built in 1900. But it was junk. The whole idea was that we had X amount of money, and the builder said, "What do you want on the walls?" And I said I wanted the cheapest I could get. He had this deal on corrugated metal. Corrugated metal? There's nothing I'd want more than corrugated metal. And so it took on a life of its own.
At what point in here did you hook up with Constantine?
I went to high school with Constantine. We were on the football team together, he was the quarterback. First pass he every threw that he completed, was to the other team. He's not here to defend that, but it's the truth. That's what happened. He threw it to the other team and they scored a touchdown with it.
So I knew Constantine from grammar school, high school, but I hadn't seen him either. And I was trying to get in touch with his brother when I was trying to do the Mardi Gras thing, because I thought that maybe he knew how to go through the maze. I ended up with Constantine, who lived in Greece. I told him I was living in London, I met with him in London after Mardi Gras. So he was a retired federal prosecuting attorney, and he said, you know, I'm interested in this, I'm looking for something to do. So I said hey, I've got these samples in, let's give it a shot. And from there it just took on a life of his own.
So moving ahead a bit, now it's last year and y'all are looking to open. How'd that go?
The first day, he invited family and friends, and it was very busy, the queue was out the door. The next day, the queue was out the door. I couldn't figure out how this had happened. The next day a girl said to me, well we heard about you on the blog. I said, "On the Blob? The Steve McQueen movie?" She said, "No, the blog."
Do you know which one it was?
Yelp. It had these mainly glowing?some not so glowing, but predominantly glowing?reviews and that's what kicked it off. So then I thought our client base would be Tulane and Loyola, because people from New York and Chicago and Pennsylvania, the real sausage eating parts of the world, maybe would adopt it.
But y'all have become so much more than a college hangout.
Yeah, so what happened was we got uptown people, we got people so old it could be there last supper. Eating on the curb, I had never seen New Orleanians eating on the curb. I just came out and couldn't believe it. And it didn't stop. It never stopped from the moment we opened. I'm shocked.
Judging just from the lines of people waiting to get in at any given moment, it seems like response has been astounding.
It's been unexpected but I'm really humble and grateful for that. I think we do a really good job, I think we do something unique. You know, I grew up with American hot dogs, but some things Europeans do particularly well. And Germans, with frankfurters, wieners, bratwurst, knackwurst, they do them really well. First time I was in Germany, I was a 19 year old starving student, and there was Otto, this guy in a 1950s era bowling shirt with the name Otto on it. And I thought, if I'm gonna get a sausage in Germany I want it to be from a guy named Otto, not Bill or Jim. He put this German encased meat that I had never had before, on a soft crusty roll, German mustard, and that was it. It was absolutely fantastic. So I never returned to the American hot dog.
So that's been the inspiration for the menu, then, as basically just a shout out to that stuff you had overseas?
Yeah, we're mainly a European style of a sausage and wiener company. However, we also have all things New Orleans. Alligator sausage, crawfish sausage. We're getting in three new and different types of sausage. Our distributor sources German frankfurters, Slovenian, Polish kielbasas made by ladies with mustaches, it couldn't be any more authentic. And so the story begins. Now you have people who haven't any earthly idea where Slovenia is who will come in and order that.
From the last year, what are you most proud of that y'all have been able to accomplish?
I think that we took a staff and it had to be fun. Because every day I want to get up and think that I'm going to have a fun day. And the staff, the service, the product, and the fun, all kind of make it really different. I think that the staff are all part and parcel to that. I always say, we have a heart and a soul. Some days it gets so crazy in there and the mayhem is so great that you know you're at breaking point. Someone's gonna have a nervous breakdown, I can see it. This song came on [one day], and I just started dancing. It was already crazy but I had this guy working, and I said, "Brendan, I'm not gonna dance alone." And he started dancing next to me, and then the crowd started clapping. It was only 20 seconds of time, but just enough to realize that we're not finding a cure for cancer. It's not that serious.
People don't leave this job. We've only had 10 employees and only 2 have left. That's something in itself. That's how you know you're doing something right. And when your staff hangs?we have a space across the street where we're eventually going to move, and after shifts end they all just go over there and hang. Most people, when they get off work can't wait to leave, so that says something.
And again, it's not that serious, but in the end everything matters. Quality matters. Looks matters. Whether you're happy matters. The vegetarians, you know, this is a monument to all things pig. If you like pig, this is your place. Vegetarians came in and said, well we don't like what we're getting. So I have worked to find things that please vegetarians. Because the vegetarian thing matters. It does matter.
There's been talk of you all moving across the street for a little while now, and it looks like construction's ongoing over there. Have any other big plans for the next year?
Yeah, I do. I'll put it like this: I have an English girlfriend, and we were in Bruges in Belgium. They have a market square in a very old medieval town. And we were dining in a café on the market square, there's always cafés all around a cathedral or a statue of a famous person. There was a monument here, a statue. At about 10 o'clock at night, tango music started in the square. And people came out, this flash mob of tango people went out and started dancing. Everyone in the café got up, myself included, and I'm not a tango aficionado but I dragged my poor girlfriend around the statue. And then the music stopped and everyone sat down. But so the market square is the focus.
My fear for Freret Street is this: It's bar-restaurant-bar-restaurant. Where is the bookstore? Where is the flower seller? So we have all of this activity going on on Freret, so far we don't stroll down Freret Street the way we do on, say, Magazine Street. So I'd like to do a young entrepreneurs pilot scheme. I have 6 kiosks that I'm working on building, there's one so far that houses the Pie Guy on weekends. This is a young guy that said to me, "I want to sell pies." I asked him if he had ever sold a pie, and he said no. So I said let's work on selling one pie, forget the tens of thousands, try to sell one. He had limited resources, so I said, this is what we're gonna do. We're gonna do a pop up pie guy. We'll give you the space, you keep all the pie money, and we'll see how it goes. And so I have 6 kiosks where we'll let people who have some ideas come in. I'm opening up to a creperie, a French guy who wants to sell crepes. The Pie Guy. I'm asking [the neighboring flower shop] to take whatever you have and bring it over on Saturdays and Sundays.
And I want to use that space, you know, do more of the beer thing. The beer before, it was basically just get a hot dog and get a beer. So now it'll be an international beer bar. 6 drafts and 8 designer beers, that's 14 beers. And wine. I don't know what wine goes with hot dogs, but that's Constantine's thing. I'm open to that. And I want to do Cinema Paradis, show movies up on the wall. Just activities. We have to be event-driven. [...] You know, in essence this is a mom-and-pop business that needs to remain mom-and-pop, but it needs to have some other things that will propel it into something else.
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