Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs 2009

Our readers and critics pick their favorites.

(page 19 of 21)

Todd S. Chusid of Johnnie's Dog House (Photo by Shane McCauley)

Top Dog

Think of Todd S. Chusid as the Henry Higgins of the hot dog world. Just as the linguistic expert of My Fair Lady could peg Eliza Doolittle’s neighborhood by her Cockney brogue, the founder and CEO of Johnnie’s Dog House (Best Local Treat Gone National), can nail, with some accuracy, your home turf by the type of frank you order.

Spicy mustard and onions light your fire? You’re a New Yorker. Baked beans and chopped onions? You must be from Beantown. Coleslaw and chili? That could put you anywhere from central South Carolina to southern Mississippi.

This encyclopedic knowledge comes to Chusid compliments of a long career traveling the world for management consulting firm KPMG. At every stop, he sampled the local fare, soaking up topping types and cataloging combinations. Work eventually drew the Manhattan native to Philadelphia, where he lived in Rittenhouse Square, then out to the Main Line. His dream of bringing a retail version of his own hot dog heaven to the masses was realized in 2004, when the first Johnnie’s Dog House opened in Wayne.

Since 2007, Chusid has been quietly expanding, offering franchises to entrepreneurs across the country. The Johnnie’s experience is now available to diners as far away as Louisiana and the state of Washington. So far, Chusid has sold an impressive 26 franchises, 11 of which are open for business. “I think this next year will be interesting because, as we grow, we’re going to expand rapidly,” he says. “Once you’re in three airports, there’s no reason you can’t be in 20.”

The menu at each store reads like an itinerary of Chusid’s travels. The Michigan Style Chili Dog, Tijuana Dog and State Fair Corn Dog share space with the Southern Comfort (the aforementioned slaw-and-chili dog), the Texas Tommy and the dinner-on-a-bun Chicago Style. “We’re trying to educate people that a hot dog is not just about mustard, ketchup, relish and onions,” he says. “People want to learn. In general, people are curious.”

But it’s through Johnnie, the eponymous (and fictional) little boy who gives the chain its name, that diners get to share in Chusid’s experiences. He felt the 1950s were overdone, so he rooted Johnnie’s persona in the ’40s, tying each store’s décor to the period. On the walls, scenes of World War II-era hot dog stands complement the vintage image of little Johnnie sitting on a curb chomping on a hot dog as long as his arm. “[We needed to] create a character specific to that era, who people can relate to and fall in love with,” says Chusid. “You look at that picture and go, ‘Wow! That’s a good-looking kid.’”

And little Johnnie has lots of fans. A recent lunchtime crowd at the Wayne location kept the small dining space at capacity while others streamed in the door to pick up to-go orders. No matter who you are, Chusid wants Johnnie’s to be your spot—where you take your kids for lunch on Saturdays, where they go for fries and shakes after school, and where they’ll eventually take their own children.

“People ask me, ‘What was the most exciting moment when you opened the doors in Wayne?’” says Chusid. “It was Friday at 3:40 p.m., and all the kids from the middle school had walked to Johnnie’s. The girls were in the middle and the boys were on the outside, and they were all sitting there eating hot dogs and fries and drinking milkshakes. That was success to me, because it made it that place, that destination.”

—Scott Pruden

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