Growth | July 2011 | By Sam Oches

Succeeding in a Vanishing Market

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West Virginia offers restaurant owners a unique market to operate in.
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For starters, it’s a beautiful state, one that’s popular for outdoor activities, with ample skiing, hiking, and white-water rafting opportunities. These kinds of activities helped the state to $4.38 billion in travel spending by overnight and day visitors in 2008, the last year with available data, according to the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

“It’s a gorgeous state, and the kind of state where I think that tourism has yet still to hit its growth potentials,” Guida says. “We then also have to rely on the fact that we can get people here easy. We’re looking at that one-tank tourism—if you can get here with one tank of gas, then we’re going to draw you.”

If Guida’s theory holds—which could prove difficult this year as a tank of gas has climbed to about $50—West Virginia is in luck; the state is roughly a tank of gas away from major metropolitans, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and even New York City.

And as the economy improves, albeit slowly, the restaurant industry stands to benefit from consumers’ increased interest in traveling.

“Roughly one out of every three [restaurant sales] dollars is travel and tourism related,” Riehle says. “Tourism is an important driver of restaurant industry sales growth. The tourism trends and the ability to attract and have a very solid marketing plan to attract and retain tourism is an important component of driving economic growth. It’s become much more widely recognized.”

Lisa Strader, communications director with the Southern West Virginia Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, says the tourism industry in the state “definitely keeps the doors open on a lot of our restaurants, especially the entrepreneurs.”

Still, Strader says there is a lot of work to be done to raise awareness about the state and to shed its “hillbilly” image. She recalls seeing a study a few years ago pointing to the hurdles the state faced in regards to its reputation.

“It was really funny because it came back saying that there were a lot of people where there wasn’t necessarily a bad perception, there just wasn’t any perception,” Strader says. “A lot of people [thought] we’re just western Virginia. We’ve worked really hard to change that … that we’re a different state, we have a lot of different things to offer. We don’t have the beach, but we do have our rivers, that type of thing.”

Sharie McGarry, left, and Sonny Knight own Hillbilly Hot Dogs, which has become a West Virginia destination.

There are other reasons for optimism, too. Strader says a new Boy Scout camp and golf resort in Southern West Virginia should draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, boosting the area economy and lending a hand to local retail operators.

Riehle says that, in a restaurant industry that includes about 70 segments, a depressed economy should not necessarily hold an operator back from entering a particular market.

“Because the industry is so large and has the hallmarks of being extremely flexible and quick to respond to rapidly evolving changes in consumers’ incomes and tastes and preferences, certain operators can end up quite successful even in an environment whereby the overall economic infrastructure may not be that vibrant,” Riehle says.

In West Virginia, that may be no more evident than in that little hotdog stand perched beside the Ohio River. Despite the rural setting and seemingly dormant business environment, Hillbilly Hot Dogs is in fact a bona fide, world-renowned quick-serve sensation.

The economy hurts, gas hurts, but it’s the quality of the service and the food that will keep people still going out.”

Owned by husband-and-wife duo Sonny Knight and Sharie McGarry, Hillbilly Hot Dogs confronts West Virginia’s poor, rural stereotypes head-on, playing on its namesake image in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. The two school buses parked beside the kitchen? Those are dining rooms. The speedboat sitting on top of the buses? A good excuse for marketing, with the operation’s name spray-painted across it.

And all of that junk crowded around the hotdog stand? Well, that’s just for effect.

Hillbilly Hot Dogs was founded 12 years ago when McGarry, who is originally from Los Angeles, and Knight moved from California back to Knight’s hometown of Lesage, West Virginia, outside of Huntington. McGarry says the business succeeded mostly by word of mouth for several years, selling its premium hot dogs mostly to locals and curious passers-by. Customers helped the couple collect hundreds of useless artifacts that make up the restaurant’s décor, which McGarry describes as “a grandmother’s basement.”

And then, in 2008, things took off. Hillbilly Hot Dogs was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show hosted by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. It’s since been featured multiple times on both the Food Network and the Travel Channel, and was even spotlighted on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show on ABC last year.

“[Now], unquestionably, it’s nothing but tourists,” McGarry says. “We have now made national recognition thanks to the Food Network, and because of that—that show is seen all over the world—we’ve had people come from China that actually don’t even speak English.”

On a rainy day in April, McGarry’s statement proves true. A lunch rush crowd—at 11 a.m. on a Friday—gushes over McGarry and Knight and brags about how far they’ve come to visit the hotdog stand, prompting Knight to ask: “Is anyone here actually from West Virginia?”

Nobody raises a hand.

With the kind of fun McGarry and Knight put on at Hillbilly Hot Dogs, it’s not surprising to learn of the distance people travel to eat at their establishment. They sing a “Weenie Song” dozens of times every day as loud as they can, they interact with each customer who walks in the door, and they carefully—and tastefully—maintain a humorous location that forces everybody to leave their prejudices at the door.

All of it proves that success in the quick-service business isn’t necessarily dependent on the market you’re in; sometimes, it’s all about the experience you create.

“I’ve talked to several other restaurant owners in the area, and everyone, including ourselves, have dropped … down,” McGarry says. “The economy hurts, gas hurts; but it’s the quality of the service and the food that will keep people still going out. Families today still want that one night, whether it’s once a month or once a week, they still want that ‘Let’s go out and do something’ [night].”

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