It was at the beginning of baseball season when Peter Higley, president of casual dining chain Pickle Barrel, stumbled across one of those ubiquitous “Best (insert product here) in the city” lists. This one was a list of Toronto’s top hot dogs, curated by one of the city’s best-known chefs.
But to be perfectly frank, Higley was not impressed. Then he wondered if there might be a way to use Pickle Barrel’s menu development expertise—as well as its existing kitchen capacity—to create a ghost kitchen dedicated entirely to the humble yet beloved hot dog.
The ghost kitchen concept has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, allowing restauranteurs to cater to customers via online delivery services minus the often significant overhead associated with brick-and-mortar locations. Euromonitor has predicted that ghost kitchens could become a US$1 trillion industry worldwide by 2030.
“We wanted to take a good look at the market, see what was out there and what could be utilized within the existing core of our menu,” said Higley. “We’re good at making lots of food items, so we’re up for the challenge, and we have the equipment we need to facilitate these menus.”
There was a lot to relish about the idea. Hot dogs offered an enticing combination of being easy to prepare, while being suited to experimentation and menu innovation. And the space seemed pretty wide open. While some chains serve hot dogs, Higley felt they seemed like more of an “afterthought” and not central to their business. “We’re in our own little category, if you will,” he said.
Creating a new brand would also require very little in the way of capital expenditures, since Higley could take advantage of existing infrastructure within Pickle Barrel and the broader capabilities of its parent company, Recipe Unlimited.
Higley enlisted Toronto agency III Inc., which recently developed Pickle Barrel’s 50th anniversary campaign, to build this new hot dog-centric brand from the ground up, including its name, logo and advertising. The result is Durty Dawgs, a decidedly in-your-face brand that’s not for the faint of stomach.
Developing a brand that resides solely on delivery platforms required the team at III Inc. to place greater emphasis on cues like the name and brand logo said III Inc.’s executive creative director, Joseph Nanni. Described by Higley as “a hot dog looking to raise hell,” the mascot was inspired by a combination of the 1960s hot rod character Rat Fink and the 1970s skateboard brand Powell Peralta. “It had a cool energy to it,” said Nanni.
And with marketing messages like “Heaven when you smell it. A hernia when you lift it,” and “So laden with toppings we had to bring back the word laden,” Durty Dawgs is much like the food it sells: Unapologetic, unrefined and unconcerned with prevailing food trends.
“We want the customer experience to be like a night in Vegas,” explains Higley. “You may want to forget it, but you’ll love it.”
Durty Dawgs currently offers nine topping-laden hot dogs (Higley refers to them as “studs,” because of course…) ranging from the hamburger-esque Burger Dawg (consisting of bacon, a beef patty, a three-cheese blend, tomatoes and BBQ sauce) to the Deli Dawg (a blend of a Reuben Sandwich and a hot dog, topped with pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and pickles, drizzled with thousand island dressing), and the Durty Harry—which can make (or perhaps break) someone’s day thanks to a hot dog smothered with crispy onions, sautéed bell peppers and mushrooms, then drizzled with BBQ sauce.
“We’re making them the way we want to make ’em,” said Higley. “We’re not healthy, we’re super-indulgent. We’re going against the prevailing trend, but in food everybody tries to do the same thing all the time. We’re being chicken sandwiched to death.”
Nanni describes the brand as “off-the-cuff” and “unfiltered,” one that not only tolerates imperfection, but actually revels in it. The menu description for the Durty Harry dog, for example, notes that it’s also known as the Western Dawg—even though Clint Eastwood’s famous “Dirty Harry” character from which it draws its inspiration was actually a 1970s San Francisco cop, not one of the actor’s western characters.
At one point during the creative development process, Nanni was playing around with the point size on the social ads when the text extended ever-so-slightly beyond the frame. Such things can be a nightmare for perfectionists, but they decided to just let it go.
“The temptation is not to fix it, so that’s what we’re doing,” said Nanni. “All of these happy accidents, we’re just going to let them slide.”
Durty Dawgs is currently available on the DoorDash, Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes platforms, although Higley said the goal is to eventually open a small storefront location to meet constant customer requests. “That’s the next evolution,” said Higley, who has more than one dog in the fight for casual food supremacy.