Hotdog Honcho on a roll again Willy Dog franchise moves into China

From Kingston Whig Standard article 2004

When Kingston’s Will Hodgskiss began selling hotdogs, he chose to adorn his carts in red and yellow, thinking they’d attract attention.

Little did he know, a decade and a half later, that those colours would also symbolize expansion to a country where they’re national colours: China.

Willy Dog, the hotdog cart franchise Hodgskiss started in 1989 with a single hotdog stand, has expanded again, this time to the Chinese capital of Beijing, adding yet another continent to his ever expanding hotdog empire.

"Not bad, huh?" Hodgskiss, 49, says, a grin cracking his face.

The deal was completed about 2 months ago after the franchisee reached Willy Dog through the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

When Hodgskiss began franchising in 1992, he figured if anyone wanted to get into the hotdog racket, they’d hit up their local embassies for a business directory.

"So I listed myself all over the world", he says. "It seems so simple, but it works. What can I say?".

Indeed it does. Since Hodgskiss started franchising Willy Dog in 1992, more than 200 red and yellow hotdog stands have popped up in eight countries across the globe.

Hodgskiss’s current success has followed a remarkable riches-to-rags-back-to-riches that saw him become a millionaire before the age of 30. Then he went bankrupt and ended up selling furniture three years later. And now he sits atop Canada’s food-cart industry.

Before graduating from Hhamilton’s McMaster University in 1985 with a sociology degree, Hodgskiss began acquiring real estate using money obtained from selling shares in a photography business he inherited from his father.

At the height of his real estate success, he owned 28 properties in the Hamilton area.

He drove a Mercedes Benz, lived in a mountainside mansion near Hamilton and "had all the toys a guy could ever want".

Some dubious investments and a sharp downturn in the housing market forced Hodgskiss to start selling his assets to service his growing debt.

"I ended up flat broke", he said. "It was a dark tunnel, a real dark tunnel at the time".

Presuming the cheque would bounce Hodgskiss slapped down his last $6,800 on a hotdog cart. He set up shop just outside a Canadian Tire in Hamilton and waited for the money to pour in, as it seemed to for the vendor outside his former workplace.

"I hired a couple of pretty girls to run it and thought people would start throwing money at me", Hodgskiss realls. But he soon learned how hard the business was.

Through it all, he relied on a saying his father had taught him: "Do the ordinary things extraordinarily well." He also came up with a mantra of his own: "It’s not how much you make, but how much you keep".

He learned the nuances of cart locations, the right hours to operate and how many workers were needed to make good profits.

The hotdogs themselves, 100-per-cent all beef wieners, were and still are privately made after an extensive consumer testing period.

Shortly into his second year, he hit on an idea that would end up making him millions.

"We needed hotdog carts shaped like hotdogs", he said. "People think I got the idea from Oscar Meyer or something, but it just came into my head one day."

On a cross-providence junket trying to sell his new carts, Hodgskiss made a stop in Espanola. He said it was the turning point of his new business. He dropped in on the manager of the town’s Canadian Tire, trying to sell him on putting a hot dog cart by the front entrance. The manager was reluctant, but finally agreed to see the cart Hodgskiss had been hauling around.

"He took one look at it and said "Why didn’t you tell me it looked like this?" Of course we’ll put one out front."" Hodgskiss recalls. "That’s when I knew I had found something that struck a chord with people."

The next year, 1992, he started franchising. A year later, he relocated to Kingston – for a change of pace, he says – and stuck a Willy dog cart in Confederation Park downtown. It’s still there today.

"It was a lifestyle change", he said. "I wanted to slow down. Kingston lets me relax a little."

Now there are red and yellow Willy Dog stands in Venezuela, Korea, Mexico, Israel and even a place called Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.

He sails his boat and flies his plane when the rigours of Willy dog aren’t too much. His Mercedes is back, too.

"It’s easy to forget where you came from but I will always have my past to remind me", says the poised and confident Hodgskiss.

"Half the time when I pick up the phone and it’s a guy who wants to buy a hotdog cart, he’s on his last buck just like I was. I know what that’s like".

Business Outlook Article – November 2005

Hodgskiss hot dog cart business an international success

It’s the hot dog cart franchise with plenty of bark and bite and its creator was honoured with the Business of the Year, 6-20 employees, at the Kingston Chamber of Commerce President’s Gala Oct. 21.

Will R. Hodgskiss, the self-proclaimed "top dog" of the hot dog cart industry says the personal accolade for his company is confirmation that the region finally understands his business’ international success. The unassuming entrepreneur has made his mint in the manufacturing and exports business. Hodgskiss says he was "honoured to be recognized" and felt vindicated that his long overlooked success story was an award winner among the Kingston business elite.

The hot dog cart franchise business embraced the global market and now operates in the United States, Australia, Korea and even some unlikely corners of the earth including Israel and Venezuela.

When asked shortly after the awards ceremony photography session how many hot dog franchises exist, Hodgskiss says he doesn’t know.

What he was certain about is that the company took off in the mid-1990’s after he decided to shift the business from food services to manufacturing hot dog carts and exports.

Prior to that switch, Hodgskiss says his hot dog vending business didn’t create a lot of buzz in the city when the momentum started in the early 1990’s.

"It was a food service company, using the simple concept of a hot dog cart, and I hired some pretty girls to man it".

That, however, didn’t work and Hodgskiss worked on a concept taken from the lack of creativity he saw at a trade show.

"Everyone was doing the same thing. So I took a vendor food cart and dressed it up with a hot dog. It was so simple, but it was just something different."

It may have been that easy, but when talking to Hodgskiss, it’s clear the company founder has a keen business sense.

He says his passion for creating a strong place in the hot dog stand industry was driven by a business person’s measure of success. "I had a vision not to be poor".

With Willy Dog taking a good bite out of the market in hot dog cart exports, his vision is being realized.

Though many people don’t know the man behind the idea, Hodgskiss’ Willy Dog carts are known to the world. Links from his website bring you to supply chains in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. The carts are also prominent in populating the Worlds Best Hot Dog Cart website, a web portal that fuels sales throughout the world.


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