By: Kathleen Curry
The US fast food market wasn't always dominated by national franchises. If you were born in the 1960s or later, like yours truly, you haven't known it any other way. On a local scale, Jack Hurley of Jack's Cosmic Dogs (JCD) is determined to change that.
Originally from Burlington, Vermont, Hurley has linked fixtures of his youth to the present for 11 with a hotdog stand and its ever-evolving menu. The original location is on Hwy 17 North, the other two are on Folly Road and Hwy 61. In 1991, Hurley moved to the Isle of Palms with his wife Priscilla, and sons Morgan and Skylar. Something sparked when he saw a roadside building off Highway 17 North."If a place ever looked like a hot dog joint, that was it." Its menu would feature homemade chili, freshly made coleslaw, longneck Nehi soda, hand-cut fries, soft serve ice cream, shakes, malts, moon pies, and draft root beer, in addition to hotdogs. Its interior would be a bright cheery diner with booths and two-seater tables, and wacky antiques from Hurley's personal collection, like a robot, a plastic tea set chandelier, a kids go cart, and rockets are inside and outside. On another wall, next to a framed and autographed copy of a Men’s Journal article about JCD (more on that later), there’s a framed 1970 program for William & Mary Football team. Hurley played offensive end; he was coached there by the young Lou Holtz, Marv Levy, & Bobby Ross. ‘Years later, Hurley got a photo with Holtz, and Holtz autographed the program. ‘Does Hurley see parallels between sports and entrepreneurship? He says, “Competitive sports develops a great work ethic, makes you want to win, and you develop ease with working all types of people to get that win.” Outside, there’s a JCD authentic airstream trailer with rockets on top; it is used for catering events. Inside and out, the whole package blends well with a retro-style logo designed by Gil Shuler and animated hotdog paintings by Mario Valdes.
‘Another crucial ingredient for JCD's business plan: a menu and daily operations un-technical enough for teenagers with no culinary or business training. The original JCD was staffed by his sons and their friends. Eleven years in, a new generation is behind the counter. Both of Hurley’s sons are bartenders in Charleston--one is at Blu in the Tides Hotel, Folly Beach, the other is at Fuel Downtown. Hurley jokes he tried to burn them out of the food business, but this plan backfired-- they're still in it.
JCD's day to day operations and menu may be simple, but it still demands the staff being on top of their game: consistent high quality food, quality service, and constant innovation. Hurley says, "You're only as good as your last meal in this business. During the week I am visiting all three locations regularly. I've also learned that you need to innovate and accommodate unique diets, or you will lose business. For example, one vegetarian in the car means that you will lose the whole car's business if don't have anything veggie on the menu. We started with a grilled carrot called "bunny in a bun", which is a real novelty item you don’t see anywhere else. Since then we've added bean burger, a veggie burger, and a tofu topping option for any veggie meal. Our next goals are adding a cheeseburger to the menu, and getting a license to serve beer. These changes will accommodate even more tastes, and drive more business.
JCD wasn't Hurley's first foray into the food business--actually, far from it. Back in Burlington, he opened six restaurants (all with partners) including Sneakers Bistro and Cafe and The Daily Planet. He started JCD with Dave Lorenz, an alumnus of Sticky Fingers. Sep Harvey, his partner in the sausage venture, also works with Sticky Fingers.
‘Speaking of innovation, JCD just unveiled the line of sausages made by Harvey this summer at all JCD locations. They are made with chicken or beef, and there are four varieties: Bratwurst, Chicken Chorizo, Kielbasa, and Hot Italian. Each one has its own custom made BBQ, ketchup, mustard, or relish topping to perfectly complement the sausage's flavor. Because Harvey makes the sausage in a small batch process, Hurley says they can experiment with new seasonal flavors in the future. For example, by winter they may be featuring an apple cinnamon sausage, or a root vegetable and beef variety that resembles the heavier, hearty meals eaten in cooler seasons. The sweet potato mustard, a unique JCD invention that’s been there since the beginning, is also available by a jar at Jack's and lot of local food stores. The new relishes developed for the sausages are sure to be available by the jar in the future.
Jack's Cosmic Dogs was a well-kept East Cooper secret until it received national acclaim from Alton Brown of Food Network. Brown originally visited JCD for a story in the Men's Journal in April 2005. A staff member tipped Brown off that not far from his regular family vacation spot in Wild Dunes, there was this awesome retro-styled hot dog joint he was bound to love. Hurley did not know what to expect with this exposure, so he did his homework, and it was hard to resist asking his interviewer a few questions first. It went something like this:
HURLEY:"So, Alton, how did you get into food, coming from a film production background?
BROWN: I had the interest in food, and I wanted to make a show. But I felt I needed culinary training first.
HURLEY: Where did you enroll?
BROWN: New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Burlington, Vermont.
HURLEY: You must know the guy I opened Sneakers with. Ever eat there?
You can imagine where the rest of this conversation went. Some of Brown's teachers and favorite haunts included Hurley's old business partners. When the story in Men's Journal was published, it lamented that food closer to large bodies of water was stereotypically bad (uh-oh), but Jack's Cosmic Dogs “shocked and slawed” Brown, JCD serves the best dog he’s ever, EVER, had. This is just the sort of notoriety Hurley had always hoped for. Brown came back later and kicked off his east to west coast motorcycling television series, "Feasting on Asphalt" with a JCD pit-stop. Brown also mentioned JCD on an episode of "The Best Thing I Ever Ate". Hurley says these shows are frequently re-aired on Food Network, and he can tell because orders for sweet potato mustard shoot up around those times.
People from other sections of Charleston will make a special trip up Hwy 17 to eat there, and Hurley says he has Food Network coverage to thank for that. Hurley says they were featured on ABC's The View around the Fourth of July. Even though it isn't a food show, and none of its hosts are foodies, coverage boosted sales. There was a line out the door in the days following that broadcast.
‘So, have you worked up an appetite?’Then I triple dog dare you to make a stop at the Jack's Cosmic Dogs when you're in Mount Pleasant, on Folly, or on Hwy 61 in West Ashley. You'll relish the opportunity.
Kathleen Curry is a Lowcountry native an alumni of C of C, Carolina and Greenville Tech. In addition to contributing to Eat This! , Curry has a blog at bakingkookys.com; she is on twitter @BakingKookys and @ Currying_Favor.