At JJ’s Red Hots in Charlotte, North Carolina, the hot dog is big business. The two-year-old eatery in the historic Dilworth neighborhood serves up hundreds of charbroiled Sahlen’s smokehouse dogs on toasted potato rolls daily.
While customers can build their own creations, JJ’s menu features a handful of regional builds, such as The Joliet Jake, a Chicago-style dog; the New York–inspired Dirty Jerz, with pickle relish, diced onions, deli mustard, and sauerkraut; and the locally favored Char Heel, a dog topped with chili, slaw, diced onions, and yellow mustard.
Cofounder Jonathan Luther discusses the inspiration behind JJ’s creation, the hot dog’s appeal, and why he embraces the “hot dog joint” label.
How did JJ’s come to be?
I was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up eating hot dogs at Ted’s, an iconic restaurant that’s been around for more than 80 years up there. When I relocated to Charlotte in 2003, I couldn’t find a decent hot dog in town. Though I saw the better-burger category explode in subsequent years, there wasn’t much movement with the hot dog. I thought if we could be the first mover in the gourmet hot dog and sausage area around here, then we’d get fans.
What makes the hot dog so appealing?
People are passionate about hot dogs, but hot dogs are also extremely regional. If you jump around the country, you’ll find so many different builds that highlight the hot dog’s diversity. In many ways, it’s a blank canvas, and that’s something we celebrate with our “Dog of the Week” program, which features funky names and interesting, even unthinkable builds.
What are some of the novel ways you’ve connected with guests?
We don’t have a huge budget for marketing, so we’re very guerrilla. We use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to evangelize and crowdsource on social media for new ideas. Last Christmas, we held our “12 Days of Hot Dogs” promotion. We gave people a finite number of items and they designed their own hot dogs. We had more than 200 submissions and picked 12 to feature. It’s that kind of stuff that gets people excited and talking about JJ’s.
You say you’re not a restaurant, but a “hot dog joint.” Why?
There can be some pretension in the industry around certain items, but we wanted to bring a sense of perspective and humility to this, mostly so we could attract people from all walks of life, ages eight to 80. We’re serious and passionate, but not fancy. Ultimately, it’s a hot dog and we can’t get ahead of ourselves.