Hofmann Hot Haus The Rusty Flook /Jerry Dellas Interview

Northern Lights Plaza in Mattydale is home to the fastest growing and definitely one of the “Hottest” restaurants in town — Hofmann Hot Haus. Since its opening last July 1994, Hofmann Hot Haus has received nothing butRave Reviews!!
The restaurant is the brainchild of Rusty Flook and The Dellas Bros. — John and Jerry. Rusty is the Plant Manager of the Hofmann Sausage Co. and great grandson of the firm’s founder. John and Jerry’s family operate many well-known restaurants in the Syracuse University area including The Olive and The Orange, Faegans and Varsity Pizza.
We sat down with Rusty Flook and Jerry Dellas recently for a talk about Hofinann Hot Haus, Heid’s and what makes a successful restaurant work.

Q – Is there a lot to learn about the Hot Dog business?
Jerry – You mean like the manufacturing of the Hotdog?

Q – Everything that goes into the operation of an establishment like Hofmann Hot Haus. Is there a lot to know?
Jerry – Yeah.
Rusty -It wouldn’t be any different than any other restaurant.
Jerry – Running a restaurant is difficult whether it’s a Hot Dog or any food item. Just because it’s a Hot Dog restaurant doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Q – Is it harder then because it is a Hot Dog?
Rusty – Well, you’ve got to concentrate on one item, that’s gotta be your main mover. You don’t have a lot to draw from, so you’ve got to do what you do, very well, so that the whole business as a whole is gonna succeed. Now besides a hot dog, we have a varied menu. .

Q – Why do you have homemade chili, soups, and French fries on the menu?
Jerry – Just to be a little different. Just to have something more that the public can eat with their hot dog. You take this place and you put it someplace else, we felt that if you had a salad, fresh salads, and other homemade products that the public would like that it would make it that much more successful.

Q – Did you conduct some kind of marketing study to determine that?
Rusty – We just observed it over the years, whether it was seeing what Heid’s did or what other hot dog stands did. We didn’t want to become a McDonald’s, Burger King with changing the menu constantly. We wanted to set a basis and run with it, and stick to what we could do well. But the idea was to offer some things that if you had a group of five people, and maybe only four were meat eaters, you had to have something there to offer them.

Q – Didn’t I read somewhere that Americans are actually eating more hot dogs than ever Before?
Rusty – U.S.A. Today. There was some fallacy to some of the things in the article. The writer kind of messed up some numbers. Other than that, he was pretty much on.
Jerry – There’s a lot more people too.
Rusty – I think people are getting hamburgered out.You’ve got so many different hamburger places and so few ‘hot dog places.
Jerry – The hot dog is making a great comeback, and the Hofmann hot dog is the best out there. Not putting a plug in, but it’s true. Rusty makes the product. His family has been making it his whole life, and I’m just instrumental in helping sell the product.

Q – Let me see if I have this right, the reason there was a split between yourself and the people at Heid’s was because Heid’s no longer wanted to carry Hofmann hot dogs.
Rusty – Well, it’s difficult because at the very end I really don’t know what the reason was. They’re saying because we were going to be direct competitors, they didn’t want to use Hofmann Hot Dog but it starts before that, with the fact that they wanted the formula. A formula that’s been in your family all those years and you’re the manufacturer of the product you’re not about to give that up to anyone. I was very willing to continue making the product we had always made for them. I was also willing to make a new product for them, if that’s what they wanted. They sort of leaned toward having a new product which I felt was a little bit irrational from the standpoint why would you change something that was your success for all these years? But, I think what ended up to be was the fact that they felt their name was stronger than the product. Only time would tell that, and it seems that time has said that it wasn’t the name, it was the product, or else they’d still be there.

Q – Is there a difference between the Hofmann hotdog that is sold up the street at Williams, and the Hotdog you sell here?
Rusty – Not at all. We only make one natural casing frank and it’s the same. Years ago people would say you make a special one for Heid’s. We never did, ever. It was the same hot dog that went to the Williams, the P&C’s and all those stores. It was the same frank.

Q – So what formula did Heid’s want?
Rusty – They wanted the actual formula to our manufacturing process. That’s like Coke saying ‘OK, I’ll give it to you.’ Nobody’s gonna do that, in anything whether it’s Mrs. Fields cookies or Hofmann Sausage Co. or Oscar Mayer. It’s propitiatory. No one’s gonna give that up. They just felt because they were a good customer they had a right to it. Well, they didn’t have a right to anything.

Q – How did you know that the public would support your restaurant?
Jerry – Because they wanted Hofmann product and they couldn’t get the Hofmann product at Heid’s.

Q – How did you arrive at the decision to put the restaurant here, at Northern Lights?
Jerry – That’s Rusty. He’s the genius behind that.
Rusty – It was all in my heart. I’ve lived in North Syracuse my whole life. When I was a small child, Northern Lights was the first mall that was ever in this whole city, in this whole county. Northern Lights as far as I know was the first mall ever built. I remember the stores here, Chappell’s, Gary‘s Clothes, everybody that was here. Firestone used to sit where Kinko’s is. This mall had its ups and downs, and of course years ago it was on its way out. Well, the gentleman who bought it from New Jersey has turned it around. He had Builders Square come in. So, for like two and a half years now I’ve wanted to build it here. Then we ran into some legal problems with ownership. Once we got that resolved, first choice was Northern Lights.

Q – Wasn’t there talk at one time of franchising Heids?
Rusty – Well, basically that’s what they’re doing or trying to do. But they’re trying to sell a package as a hotdog stand with less emphasis on the product itself.
Jerry – I sat with the people from Heid’s. We had three meetings. We were going to franchise their place from the Watertown, Utica area. They told us they dropped the Hofmann product, but not to worry because they had the recipe. So we sat there. My cousin and I went around to the different Heid’s and everyday the taste was deferent. We went back and said you got the wrong recipe. We backed out of the picture. Rusty was in the process of doing this whole thing here, and we joined forces ’cause we’re in the restaurant business. After getting to know Rusty and he got to know us, we felt…
Rusty – It was a good mix.
Jerry – We got a good mix here.

Q – Are you looking at additional properties for a Hofmann Hot Haus stand?
Rusty – Yes. Inside Syracuse and outside Syracuse, but we’re just taking it one step at a time, so that we minimize our mistakes. You know, we don’t want to make some of the mistakes they’ve made in the past, picking wrong locations or going along head first. We’re trying to be sensible about it.

Q – Rusty you’ve said, “The key to success in any business is the people that work for you. We’re proud of the quality people that we have on our staff.” How do you find quality people? What are you looking for?
Rusty – People with good work ethic, in other words, at Hofmann Sausage Co. we tend to have a policy of there’s no this on my job, that’s not my job. We basically all work as a team, because we’re small. We can afford to do that. Some large companies they specifically have to have job titles, and separate people out but basically in our business, and which goes for here we rotate the people we have
in here from job to job, so that nobody gets bored doing the same thing. You kind of understand what the other guys job is because you do it also.

Q – You’re not a suit and tie man then?
Rusty – Very seldom. I mean there’s times that I do, if I call on customers or have special meetings, but other than that it’s usually blue jeans, a hair net, white coat.
Jerry – It’s interesting you say that, because Carol Heid who works for us, when she worked at Heid’s for 20 plus years, she never saw the owners ever come in there, and ever lift anything. If they came in, it was just to look around, and then they’d leave. When Rusty and I are here, we’ll jump right in there on the grill and grill and I’ll stand by the register or whatever it takes. All the Heid’s employees were amazed when they saw this.
Rusty – That we worked.
Jerry – We’re normal people. We work too. If we don’t do it, I wouldn’t expect them to-do it. It’s that type of philosophy. We can do it, they can do it. I’ll clean the bathrooms, whatever it takes.

Q – This must be a 7-day work week.
Rusty – This is.
Jerry – For an average guy in business, it’s a 7-day work week.

Q – 12-hour days?
Jerry – Well, you know it probably is 12 hours. We may get a break for 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon and go do something once in a blue moon, but I drop my kids off at school at 8 a.m. and I get home at about 8 or 8:30 at night.
Rusty’s gone at 4:30 in-the morning.
Rusty – I left here at 10:30 last night. I delivered hot dogs last night.
Jerry – It’s long hours, no question. It’s not a bank job, 9 to 5.. You get the weekend calls. Rusty is coming in here on weekends delivering product.

Q – How long can you keep that up?
Rusty – I’ve been doing it almost 30 years. I don’t want to do it forever.
Jerry – It’s the way we were both brought up. You know we worked as kids. I worked for my dad who owned The Varsity up on the Hill, Varsity Pizza. I started at 6, 7 years old, going in there doing dishes. Then I went on to college I was gonna be a dentist. I wound up back in the restaurant business.

Q – It almost seems like you have to be involved in this business early on in your life to get the hang of it.
Jerry – If you wanted to do it, I’d first tell you go get a job as a dishwasher somewhere, if you really wanted to learn the restaurant business. Start as the dishwasher. A lot of times you go to the dishwasher and ask him what’s wrong with the restaurant, and he’ll have all the answers. He’s got everybody telling him what to do, and he just stands there and observes. It’s amazing how much information you get out of a dishwasher, or in our case here the maintenance guy. I’ll go up to him and say ‘Ted, do you notice anything unusual? Any of our food left on the plate?’ If he said to me, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of coleslaw,’ that’s ‘an indication that people don’t like our coleslaw. But, he hasn’t said that. He said they eat everything there. There’s nothing left.

Q – And you totally trust this man’s observations and opinions?
Jerry – Oh, absolutely.
Rusty – That’s the whole problem with a lot of businesses that fail. The guy in the higher echelons feel they’re the ones with all the smarts. You have to take some advice from the people that work for you, because they’re the ones who are in the trenches all day. We put faith in those people.
Jerry – A lot of major corporations today have their problems because they’ve got all the guys at the top
looking at their computer printouts and they never go and see what actually happens and talk to the people. We constantly talk to the employees, you know, ‘What do you think of this? I’ll put someone in a position and say any way you can make this work better, let us know and give us ideas and we’ll implement it. It’s a team effort in other words, from the top right down to the bottom, to be successful in any business, not just the restaurant business.

Q – Would you have that same philosophy if there were 250 Hofmann Hot Haus restaurants?
Jerry – You can if you bring your employees up the ladder with you. It all starts in your foundation. If your foundation is strong in the beginning in this business or any business and you move people up, part of the blocks of that foundation, they’ll help teach those who are coming on board. It can work. It gets difficult, but it can work.
Rusty – With this one restaurant and the plant I can deliver and I can make the hot dogs. With 250, would I have that time? No, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t check with the people, that I wouldn’t spend one day in one restaurant in one area doing what I do now. The thing is to always come back to those roots. It isn’t like all of a sudden you move into some corporate office and you don’t see what’s going on. That’s why there’s the three of us that can run around and see those different operations and know what’s going on. We’re more hands on people than anything else. I’d rather hire somebody to do the higher echelon work and the bookkeeping and all those things, and us stay close to the restaurants.
Jerry – You know the register money? I don’t think Rusty and I have touched it but one time because we’re not worried about the cash coming in. We’re more worried about the day to day operation. We trust our employees that are going to count the money properly. There are checks and balances if we want to go to the register tapes and match things up. A lot of people in the business will just sit there and they’re worried about the cash coming in, and then you hear the stories about people grabbing
cash out of the drawers, those places are gone within two or three years.

Q – What would happen if you opened a Hoffman Hot Haus stand next to the Heid’s stand in the Food Court area of Carousel Mall?
Rusty – First of all, in Carousel you couldn’t do it because Congel and Pyramid would not allow it to go in the mall, ’cause there’s certain rights. People have said to us, why not build one next to the Heid’s in Liverpool? Competition is good for any business. You wouldn’t want to put one of these out where there’s nobody. There’s nothing wrong with putting in ’em in this area where there’s a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s and a Burger King, because it gives people a choice. I’m not looking for everybody to come here everyday. If you go out to eat three times a week at a fast food place, maybe you’ll pick McDonald’s today and Wendy’s the next day and Hofmann’s the third day, and maybe it alternates. We’re trying to build a large customer base, and satisfy all the people not just keep to one niche of people who love hotdogs. As far as moving in right next to Heid’s I don’t think it would be beneficial from the standpoint of yes we could say we took that customer away from them. Well, if we took ’em all away we’d be so crowded that there would be customers that would be ticked off because they weren’t served properly at our place, they’re gonna go back to Heid’s or just an overflow may go there. I don’t think there’s any reason to try and grab somebody. So actually, what we’ve tried to do is stand on our own, be in an area that’s not even competitive with ’em and if the people come to us, we must be doing something right.
Jerry – In other words we’re not out to get Heid’s, like we’ve got to go wherever they go. We’re our own entity. We don’t even, to be honest, think of ’em when we do any of our planning.
Rusty – It’s not that highly competitive thing, where if McDonald’s does this, then Burger King does this. We don’t even look at what they do. I haven’t been in a Heid’s since May of ’93 when they dropped us.

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