Growing up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Adam Dragotta considered himself a hot dog fanatic. According to him, there was no better hot dog than the New Jersey-style dogs he grew up eating: deep fried, on a steamed bun, and topped with a pickle spear.
Dragotta has worked in the restaurant industry in one capacity or another for most of his life. While he was working in a Tuscon, Arizona kitchen in his early 20's, he got into a playful argument with a co-worker who claimed that the world's best hot dogs were Tucson's Sonoran hot dogs, a sort of Mexican-American hybrid in which bacon-wrapped dogs get stuffed into bolillos and topped with beans, grilled onions, fresh onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, crema, mustard, jalapenos, and salsa. To end the argument, Dragotta joked that he was going to open his own hot dog shop and call it My Greasy Wiener—and that's how Los Angeles' Greasy Wiener food truck was born.
Dragotta immediately turned the joke into a novelty t-shirt that he sold on the weekends. Everyone responded well to the shirt and urged him to open up the actual restaurant, but at 22 he just couldn't afford it. He did the next best thing: he got a hot dog cart and began selling his deep fried hot dogs in Tucson.
Now Dgragotta is 31, and his popular Greasy Wiener truck is in Los Angeles, serving up some of the best dogs in the city. He recently chatted with me about his specially made wieners, the difficulties of running a food truck in a food truck-crazed town, and his plans for the future.
Growing up, were you always interested in food? I grew up working at ice cream stands and other shops not because I had to, but because I liked to. I'm Italian and I was the kind of kid that hung out in my grandma's kitchen on the weekends. In high school I thought about taking it more seriously and becoming a chef, but I eventually decided that I didn't want to cook restaurant-style food for a living. So yes, I've always loved food and I've always known it was my passion.
So you sold the shirts and had the cart. When did you decide to make the jump and get a truck? I moved to San Diego and planned to do my cart there, but I ran into problems with the health department. It was bizarre, but according to them I couldn't fry my hot dogs; I could only boil them. I could; however, fry them at "special events." I refused to do that because I knew it would ruin my food. You can have the greatest product, but if it's not cared for and cooked properly, there's no use. My brother was living in Los Angeles at the time and he called me up and told me about this crazy food truck revolution that was happening there and so I decided to make the move and get a truck of my own.
Tell me about your dogs—what makes them special? Before the truck, I was having the hot dogs shipped in from Maryland. But I knew I needed a better product. I called my friend Eric Maczko, a C.I.A. graduate and the executive chef at Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa. Eric is the one who came up with our hot dog recipe and he went with me to different manufacturers. I wanted to keep it simple and do things right, so we decided to go with a local producer. It's a German family that uses our recipe, so we essentially have our own hot dog and it's an all beef dog with beef fat, which I think produces a heartier flavor than dogs made with pork fat.
We also have Angus sliders that we call our Iggys. The meat's ground fresh, never frozen. The meat's this really beautiful color when we get it and you can tell from the taste of the meat that it's top quality. We take our product very seriously.
What are some of your favorite food trucks in LA? There are so many different trucks in Los Angeles, but it still feels like a really small community. When I first came to L.A. I went to the Kogi truck and it blew me away. I regularly eat at Knockout Tacos, the Slice Truck, which I think serves up the best pizza in the city, and the India Jones Chow Truck. I never even had Indian food until I ate at this truck and it's amazing.
What's your truck's most popular item? It's become known as "The Bomb," but it's supposed to be called The Bacon Chili Cheesy. It's our signature greasy wiener wrapped in hickory smoked bacon and topped with homemade chili and cheese, mustard, sauteed onions, and a pickle. When I first made it, I took a picture of it and posted it outside of the truck. One of our cooks wrote on the picture and said that it was the bomb, but people thought that's what the name of the item was and it kind of stuck.
Run me through a typical service day. I wake up at 6 a.m., dress, put something in my belly, and then go get the truck. L.A.'s a competitive town as far as food trucks go, so I have to find parking right away. I open at 11 a.m., but it's not unusual for me to already have my spot at 8 a.m. We do a lunch service every weekday and after that it just depends. I always say we work smart. I used to work every single second trying to sell food, but now if things are slow I pack it up and work from home. Social networking is crucial to this business, so at home I catch up on that and respond to e-mails or work out a new strategy to make sure we don't have another slow day. If I'm really lucky, I'll be in bed by 11 p.m.
What advice would you give to someone entering this business? This business is a lot tougher than I thought it'd be; it can be really exhausting. I think people should keep it simple, that's the best approach. Keep the product simple, use the best ingredients you can afford, and cook the food you love to eat. I also can't stress enough how important social networking is. If you don't Facebook, Twitter, etc., you better start.
Most of the time people in this industry will help you and you should ask for help. A lot of the trucks I eat at have been doing this a lot longer than me, so you can't be afraid to ask them for advice. Don't go into this thinking you know everything. For our food, we consulted a CIA chef. For our logo and the look of our truck, we consulted a professional artist. For our marketing, we consulted a marketing expert. These are obviously all best case scenarios and they require money, but the point is you need to consult with people who know what they're doing. The food truck scene is now very competitive and you want to put your best foot forward.
Where do you see The Greasy Wiener in five years? I really believe in my concept and my product. People think it's funny and they really seem to love our food, so eventually I'd love to see a Greasy Wiener franchise. I've done it in three cities, I know that it works, and I want to get the idea out there. It's not my goal to own five trucks. I want to share my experience, my recipe, and my concept with someone and expand on it. I'm learning a lot and I love what I do, but that's my dream.