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Restaurateur Dey using distinctive background to find success with gourmet hot dog concept

Michael Dey, owner, Weenies in Denville.-(AARON HOUSTON)

How about a hot dog smothered in pineapple and bacon? Or, perhaps, one loaded with cream cheese, scallions and seeds from an everything bagel? Don’t order yet! Maybe you want to be one of the first to try a dog that’s wrapped in a slab of bacon and then deep fried?

Talk about choices.

Michael Dey is updating the menu for the first anniversary of Weenies, a Denville eatery that can best be described as a fast-casual dining experience built around takeout and late-late-night delivery.

Dey is confident his business model works. Better yet, after 12 months of what he calls better-than-expected sales, he’s confident he has found the next big thing: gourmet hot dogs.

“I look around New Jersey and the one type of establishment that outlasted every single fad and every single economy and every single trend was hot dogs, burgers and fries,” he said.

“In the better burger category, the explosion of concepts caused a market saturation. Hot dogs were the one thing that fell out of fashion in the last few years. I basically wanted to do what better burger chains did with the burger and do that with the hot dog.”

But do it with a twist.

Dey, who owns and operates Fatty’s, a sandwich shop in Morristown, always has been about more than just the food.

Weenies, like Fatty’s, is open and has delivery until 3 a.m. … every day. And it never uses coupons or gimmicks to draw customers, relying instead on aggressive social media campaigns.

“I wanted to take the wackiness and innovation that Fatty’s brought to the sandwich shop and bring it to something that has a much wider family appeal,” Dey said. “We took the 3 a.m. delivery, the late hours, the online orders, the branding and the marketing. That was how Weenies was built.”

That’s only partially true.

Weenies’ success can be traced back to the ingenuity and hard work of Dey, the most unusual of restaurant entrepreneurs.

He’s a former high school whiz kid who walked away from his college scholarship at New Jersey Institute of Technology. And a former master mechanic who walked away from a lucrative career at a premier European automaker 10 years ago.

Social media stars

Restaurant entrepreneur Michael Dey says social media is the only way to market a restaurant. “With social, you can directly interact with customers and potential customers,” he said. “I think it’s a much more powerful medium and goes much further as long as you’re strategic about it and know how to execute on multiple platforms.”

He said social has been a big reason for his success with Weenies, a gourmet hot dog establishment that is celebrating its one year anniversary this month and already is profitable.

“We’re using Snapchat to engage potential customers,” he said. “I have somebody doing social media interaction fulltime. She has snap streaks with people that are going 100 days in a row. “These are people who are die-hard buyers. They come in, they make a purchase and they put it on Snapchat. We’ve kind of created a little bit of a cult in town by putting people on Instagram and Snapchat. Young customers ask to be on the Instagram page because these kids are obsessed with it.”

It’s marketing gold, Dey said.

“When they are featured by the local restaurant, it makes them feel special,” he said. “It’s free to do. And when you make a customer feel that way, you have that impact. There’s no coupon, there’s no television commercial or anything you can buy media wise that could make a customer feel like that.”

All to buy a Subway franchise — despite having never spent a minute in the food industry.

“People said I was crazy,” he said. “I had no food experience whatsoever.

“I never worked in a food restaurant prior to owning one. I never worked in one as a kid, I have no relatives or colleagues in the business.”

Dey thinks that’s a plus.

“I look at the business very differently from other chef-owners or restaurant people, and I think that’s a big strength of mine,” he said. “It’s allowed me to get this far, so I think it’s working.”

•••

After graduating from Parsippany High School, Dey went to NJIT on a scholarship. Two years later, he said, the school did him the biggest favor.

“They kicked me out,” he said. “And that was great, because I really, really hated school.”

Dey trained to become an auto mechanic and soon caught on with Audi. Before long, he said, he was one of the top-rated mechanics in the country. And certainly, he said, one of the wealthiest.

“I was a master German car technician,” he said. “I was doing very well in the car business. I made money hand over fist. It was the ultimate job; everybody called me crazy for wanting to get out of it. But, I saw the writing on the wall.”

The realization was pure economics.

“I was doing very well, but I saw that I could only go so far because of my own physical labor,” he said. “I could only work on so many cars in a day. I looked into buying a dealership, but the cost of entry was too high.”

Dey searched for an alternative.

“The next step for me was to design a system that works for me instead of me doing all the work,” he said. “I wanted to do something systemized, something that did not deal with skilled labor. I looked around and saw these McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants operating with kids and they’re making fortunes. I said to myself, ‘My future is in the restaurant business.’”

In 2007, Dey bought his first Subway franchise, in Denville. In 2009, he added a location in Rutherford.

Within a few years, Dey realized being a franchisee wasn’t going to cut it. Especially at Subway.

“The writing was on the wall with some of the things that they were doing, most importantly, with the excess discounting,” he said. “The only thing that they were doing to drive traffic was giving the entire store away. They weren’t doing anything with new product releases. They weren’t really focusing on the brand or working on fundamentals. I saw no end in sight.

“The economics kept getting worse. Subway reached its height in 2012 and, from that point on it, it’s been in decline and still hasn’t recovered.”

Dey is correct. Subway sales have dropped dramatically in the past five years. Fortunately for Dey, he sold his Rutherford store in 2012 and his Denville location in 2013.

In April 2013, he opened Fatty’s in Morristown, with one premise: Copy the good things Subway did and get rid of the bad.

“I made a list of everything I liked about Subway and everything I didn’t like,” he said. “I wanted to take everything I learned from the franchise business and construct the ultimate sandwich shop. I wanted something that was systemized, something that can be done consistently, something with good branding and good marketing but with a very indulgent product that stays open late and delivers to offer more convenience to its customers. Fatty’s was born just like that.”

Fatty’s was a success from the start. But Dey quickly realized its success had a ceiling.

“One of Fatty’s weaknesses is the appeal of its food,” he said. “It’s limited.

“Even though we offer a half-size portion, a sandwich is not something everyone wants for lunch. Sometimes they don’t want it for dinner, either. I could have done a lot of things. I could have offered salads, I could have offered wraps. But I didn’t want to get away from who we were.”

Instead, he started a new concept.

•••

Fatty’s takes advantage of Morristown’s vibrant night life and its local college scene.

Weenies, however, is proving to reach a wider audience.

“Weenies is definitely more family-oriented,” Dey said. “We have 9-month-olds and 90-year-olds coming in. It appeals to everybody, and that was the goal going into it.”

Dey had hoped that would be the case. And in the first year, he’s gotten a bigger surprise: The late-night delivery concept works for Weenies, too.

Dey estimates that 40 percent of Weenies revenues come after midnight, despite being in Denville, which would never been confused with Morristown.

Of course, that was one of the reasons Dey decided to open there.

“The towns are hugely different,” he said. “They are not in same category whatsoever. But I wanted to do an experiment.

“I wanted to come back to Denville because I know the landscape, but I also came back because I know it’s a very sleepy town. I wanted to bring this Denville to see if it could succeed. If I can make it here, I can put one in almost any ZIP code that has similar business assets and similar business traffic flows as Denville.

“This is an experiment for future restaurants.”

The coming months will be about adjusting the menu, adjustments Dey is making based on customer feedback.

The menu currently features approximately two dozen variations — there’s the mac & cheese dog, the pulled pork dog, the Cheeto dog and the nacho dog, among others. Weenies also offers fries (with many of the same topping choices) and sliders.

“Even though our hot dog toppings are unforgettable, we wanted to take that a step further,” he said. “We’re going to offer more sides, like mozzarella sticks and onion rings. And we’re adding more French fry combinations to widen the appeal there.

“We had eight milkshake flavors when we opened; we now have 19. We’re working off a list of feedback that people told us along the way. So, once we do that, I’m going to ramp up the marketing machine and get our numbers to where they need to be.”

While Fatty’s will continue on in Morristown, Dey knows his future growth is with more Weenies locations.

“Weenies is much more replicable than Fatty’s,” he said. “It’s more systemized, more mainstream, more replicable, but it still has incorporated all the fun and innovative elements of Fatty’s.

“Once Weenies in Denville hits critical mass, and we’re very close to getting there right now, it’s going to be time to scout around towns in Morris County and find places to put them. Hopefully, in three to five years, we’ll have three to five more Weenies.”

And while Dey may be looking for locations, he said he is not looking for partners.

After 10 years in the restaurant business, he has come to trust his judgment.

“The only ship that never sails is a partnership,” he said. “Once you take on a partner or an investor, regardless of what the legal arrangements are, you now have fiduciary responsibility to them and you have to answer to them. The reason why I haven’t done anything like that is because no one wants to work as hard as I do.”

And no one, he says, comes from the same background.

“It all goes back to being a mechanic,” he said. “It goes back to having a mentality where I have to solve problems constantly. It has to come from within. My instincts have served me well.

“I don’t believe that other people can see what I can see.”

Right now, that’s a hot dog smothered in pineapple and bacon.

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