Calgary's Tubby Dog finds fast-casual success with an elevated staple
The quirky eatery seems to have become both a Calgary institution and an inspiration for others looking to find success serving one item and doing it well
Hunkered down on a sidewalk curb along Calgary's 17th Avenue around 2 a.m. or so, I was so immersed in devouring my hot dog that cars roaring by, or the drunken chatter coming from a huge lineup of people waiting to get to Tubby Dog's takeout window, felt like white noise. They would soon find my same euphoria. Topped with Kewpie mayo, seaweed, pickled ginger and enough wasabi to make a young twentysomething's eyes water, this was an untraditional hot dog of epic proportions and something that I had never experienced before.
Somewhat ironically, I vividly remember that hazy late-night moment as if it was yesterday.
Twelve and a half years later, here I am sitting inside Tubby Dog – practically the antithesis of my young self– and chatting with owner Jon Truch about his continued success since he opened his hot-dog-centric spot in 2005.
A lot can change in more than a decade, but Tubby's menu has not.
Singularly focused restaurant concepts aren't necessarily a new idea. Norman Rockwell was painting portraits of ice cream shops long before I was born, burger shacks are nothing original and hot dog carts have been around for decades, but Tubby? Well, the mustard- and ketchup-coloured dineresque space and hearty dogs dressed with toppings such as cheese, bacon, mayo and crushed potato chips or Cap'n Crunch cereal, peanut butter and jelly was something that no one had ever seen before. Not in the mid-2000s, anyway.
"I remember when we first opened people would walk in, look at the menu and say things like, 'You only sell hot dogs? Good luck, pal!' and walk straight out," reminisces Mr. Truch, chuckling. "It took a couple of years for Calgarians to accept the fact that you can have a hot dog restaurant."
With initial success because of a late-night crowd, Tubby Dog charmed all types of Calgarians for its fun interior, signature hot dogs, but also for its family-friendly environment throughout the day. Plenty of praise from local media in early years followed by a feature on the Food Network Canada series, You Gotta Eat Here! in 2012 helped further cement the mildly outlandish restaurant as a dining destination for Canadians.
Though not intentional by any means, Mr. Truch's quirky eatery seems to have become both a Calgary institution and an inspiration for others looking to find success serving, essentially, one item and doing it well.
Looking across the country, there are only a handful of "modern" weiner-based concepts comparable to Tubby Dog, which precedes them all. Vancouver's Japadog – originally a small group of food carts – didn't open a bricks-and-mortar location until 2010. Toronto's Fancy Franks opened up shop in 2012 on Queen Street West and up in Edmonton, Mayday Dogs recently made its debut in the lower level of the Mercer Warehouse downtown to plenty of buzz.
"I don't know if sticking with one particular focus is necessarily an easier route," says Mr. Truch on operating a singularly focused fast-casual concept instead of a full-blown restaurant. "The restaurant business is never an easy one, no matter how you look at it. Especially in this current economy it has gotten really hard."
He goes on to say that although he has a devoted diner fan base, Tubby's late-night takeout window hasn't been in service for more than five years. He attributes it to a shift in the 17th Avenue nightlife.
"We used to operate out of the window after midnight, mostly for safety because it was out of control down here with all the Calgary Flames fans back in the 'Red Mile' days and we would have a line of 60 people at 3 a.m. Now, we'll just keep the doors open and we're lucky to see a few people on the street past 1:30 a.m."
With a dwindling late-night crowd, Mr. Truch stays front-of-mind to Calgarians by allowing Tubby Dog to double as a live-music venue as well as a setting for a variety of fundraising events throughout the year and even a few weddings.
Looking beyond the hot-dog realm, there have been no shortage of interesting, well-branded fast-casual restaurants opening up in the past few years.
Top Chef Canada: All Stars winner Nicole Gomes has hit her stride with her chef-driven fried chicken venture, Cluck N Cleaver. Utca Chimney Cakes Cafe in Calgary has proved to be a hit as well, dishing out its "chimney cakes" (trdelnik) which are a cylindrical Eastern European pastries traditionally cooked over coals and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Edmonton's Zwick's Pretzels sells just that – and a few sandwiches too – and is, perhaps, the most interesting fast-casual concept to appear in Canada in quite some time.