A group of staffers from the Bryn Mawr School in Roland Park made their once-a-year pilgrimage to the Haute Dog stand in Mount Washington on Thursday, July 23.
"It's just for National Hot Dog Day, "said Monica Robinson, an administrative assistant in the Bryn Mawr admissions office. "It's become an annual thing for us. And the hot dogs are that good."
But for some loyal customers, Haute Dog — pronounced Hote (or Oat with a silent 'H,' if you want to be French about it) — is a weekly fix.
Perry Jones, a FedEx truck from Harford County, said he comes at least that often, as he did Thursday.
"Man does not live by hot dogs alone, but they've got some good ones," Jones said.
Five years after Daniel Raffel opened Haute Dog in a former garage next to the Bonjour bakery on Falls Road in Baltimore County, a tenth of a mile north of the city line, his gourmet, quarter-pound hot dogs and sausages are still the rage, Wednesdays through Sundays, from 11a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for lunch-hour crowds from as far away as Carroll County. Especially on a Saturday, the line can stretch down the block to Lake Avenue for Haute Dog's offerings.
The menu includes the HD Signature, described as a Black Angus Dog "finished" with bacon and onion marmalade, tomato and onion jam, and authentic Dijon mustard. There's also a Smoked Country Sausage, a Spicy Italian Grilled Roman Pork Sausage, and a daily Chef Dog, one of 75 that rotate daily, including a bison dog with cherry-chili barbecue sauce, and a "duck dog" with peach and apricot compote.
The hot dogs are tucked inside serious buns, hollowed-out and oversized. Raffel buys them from a bakery that he would not identify.
Adult customers aren't turned off by the high-falutin' frankfurters, and neither are children.
"Lots of kids have very sophisticated palates," Raffel said. They also get a free piece of candy.
The prices, ranging from $5 to $6 per dog (plus $1 each for chips and a soda) aren't scaring people away, either.
"In the beginning, there was a lot of resistance to $5 hot dogs," Raffel said. "Not anymore. They see (the concept), and they get it."
Even dogs get it. In fact, said Raffel, "Dogs eat free."
Becky Spigelmire already knew that. She pulled up to Bonjour on Thursday with her dog, Carter, in the car, bought muffins and coffee for herself, then walked to Haute Dog, bought a hot dog for Carter and fed it to him in the car in about 30 seconds.
"It goes fast," she said. "It goes very fast."
For Spigelmire, 30, who lives and works in Mount Washington, Haute Dog is very much a neighborhood joint.
"It's nice to have that community feel," she said.
New use for old garage
Sitting at an outdoor counter at Bonjour and waving to the occasional honking motorist passing by, Raffel, 48, recounted how he went from being a chef, caterer and consultant to opening a glorified hot dog stand in 2010.
Raffel said his past work has included helping to open the restaurant Alizee American Bistro at the Inn of the Colonnade on West University Parkway. He later worked as a project manager to reopen the landmark Hotel Brexton in downtown Baltimore as a sister property to the Colonnade.
When that job ended after 18 months, Raffel found himself at loose ends and cooking up ideas for his own business, which is how he came up with the idea for Haute Dog.
"I wake up in the morning with food ideas," he said.
He borrowed a hot dog cart from a friend in the food business, who told him, "If you make money this summer, you can buy it from me."
He also leased a 300-square-foot garage space in the Bonjour building from his friends, Bonjour co-owners Gerard Billebault and Gayle Brier-Billebault, for a nominal rent, under a cross-marketing plan that allows Haute Dog customers to eat at Bonjour, since Haute Dog has no seating of its own. The idea is to draw Haute Dog Customers into Bonjour, too.
"We think that folks will buy desserts (at Bonjour) — and they do," Raffel said.
He tried out several ideas, including pairing his hot dogs with wines and commissioning 10 other chefs to make hot dogs. Only two of the chefs followed through, but that experiment was the genesis of the Chef Dog of the day.
Haute Dog opened on July 10, 2010, as Raffel set up his hot dog cart outside the garage with a hand-lettered menu on a chalkboard.
He began drawing customers immediately, and a party for reporters a week later generated a lot of press and good coverage.
It was a month before he thought to open the garage door, and six to eight months before he put up a red awning, because so many people were standing in the rain or snow to buy hot dogs.
Today, Haute Dog's reputation precedes it, thanks to word of mouth and several awards, including from City Paper as "best hot dog" and "best reason to eat standing up."
Raffel's roller "carte," which holds 75 dogs at a time, stands between the sidewalk and the garage, which now has a curtain across the entrance. Behind the curtain are several refrigerators, coolers and baker racks.
On a typical morning, an hour or more before the Haute Dog opens, you might find Katie Loskot, one of Raffel's two part-time employees, setting out recyclables for pickup, sweeping the curb or getting dogs and sausages ready to cook.
Loskot, a friend of Raffel's, said she used to work for a hazardous materials company. Now, she said, "I'm a sassy sausage girl."
Raffel runs a modern business, with a website, www.hautedogcarte.com, and a presence on social media, including Facebook and Twitter. He recently added a food truck, which will launch officially by the end of the summer, but is already around town on a soft opening, he said.
But customers can't order online or use fee-based food delivery service applications, which he wants no part of, he said.
He doesn't do curbside service, although he makes exceptions for his handicapped customers, including Burt Gelbar, 80, of Pikesville, who said, "I come here all the time. The hot dogs are great and it's convenient."
Raffel, who lives in the Lakeside community near Lake Montebello, prefers to do business up close and personally.
"How long are you staying?" Raffel yelled to firefighters from the Park Heights station, regular customers who pulled up across the street well before the Haute Dog opened for business Thursday. He offered to cook some hot dogs for them, but they couldn't stay and said they would be back the next day.
One of Raffel's customers that day was from out of town — way out of town. Kim Oppenheim, 54, lives in Leysin, Switzerland, a ski resort town, where she teaches at an international school, but she grew up in Randallstown and spends summers in Baltimore, where her mother still lives.
"My husband loves coming here," Oppenheim said, standing in line at Haute Dog. She said Switzerland has hot dogs, "but they're skinny little things."
A number of customers interviewed Thursday were first-timers. Keith Gwynn, assistant women's basketball coach at Kent State University in Ohio, was in Baltimore for a recruiting event, saw Haute Dog as he was driving by, and decided, "This looks like a net spot."
Then there was John Hendricks, 47, dean of the arts at the St. Paul Schools, who has heard on and off how good Haute Dog is. He happened to be in the area and stopped in.
"That was crazy good," Hendricks said after sitting at Bonjour and polishing off a hot dog. "I'm sold for life."