Asiadog is a small restaurant on Kenmare Street in downtown New York that specializes in hot dogs with Asian cuisine toppings, like kimchi and Japanese curry. Started by Melanie Campbell and Steve Porto, it’s gone from a pop-up to a food stand to a brick and mortar location. But that transition wasn’t always easy. Campbell talks about the development of their still new business and how they made it through their first real year.
We were very fortunate because we didn’t really have a set goal of starting our own business in the beginning. We started Asia Dog as a weekly pop-up at a bar. Because we were consistent—we showed up every week, people knew where to find us—we had this root of a following.
My partner Steve and I met at Diesel, so we were both in the fashion industry. At the time we started Asiadog I was running my own showroom, repping small and independent kids fashion lines and he was freelancing doing visual merchandising and helping open a Vietnamese restaurant.
We started in the end of July in 2008 and then stopped when it got colder. That winter we applied to the Brooklyn Flea, which has become this incubator of new food businesses and entrepreneurs. We got in the next summer. So we were working on Asiadog every weekend, plus working our day jobs during the week. After that crazy summer of working every day, we decided to quit our jobs and focus on Asiadog.
We realized that as lucrative as it was on the weekends, it was only two days out of the week and we were trying to support both of us, so we needed a home. We were at a crossroads where we could have either opened a food truck or a retail location. We didn’t really have an interest in a food truck. We realized we had a story to tell and we really wanted to create our own environment.
We were looking for spots for a really long time. In New York you can be in midtown, where there are a billion people, but that’s not our vibe. We wanted to be downtown.
We didn’t have any income coming in at that time. The markets had ended and we had to make sure that we had enough money to pay the bills. We were very fortunate because the markets afforded us a test run of our products and allowed us to earn a little starting capital to get us through the winter. That was when we were aggressively looking for space. It took us five months to find the space that we wanted. We thought that we would open by the summertime, in 30 or 60 days, but of course with the nature of New York and with all these old buildings, it took six months to get permits. We didn’t get work permits until November. Luckily we had written in provisions into our lease that we wouldn’t start paying rent until we could start work on the space.
From April to November we had a whole other season of markets, and at that point we had all these people calling us for catering and other events. In New York, every weekend in the summer there’s another street fair or festival or one-off event that we were being invited to. As the season died, we got work permits and we spent the whole winter in zero degree weather building out the store.
Most people find investors and secure enough capital to start their business, because for a food business you need a lot of capital—like for at least six months of rent. We didn’t have that, we didn’t want that. We just went for it. We wanted to retain 100% ownership for ourselves.
Steve and I have worked in restaurants, but we’ve never managed a restaurant before. I do most of the front of the house and he does all the kitchen management. Both of us don’t have a lot of experience in those fields, so when we opened in April of 2011, it was crazy. We definitely tried talking to as many friends in the business that we knew for advice, but it was 24 hours a day: securing vendors, prepping, managing the flow of service, figuring out how you want the front of house and the back of house to run, hiring… I remember falling asleep writing emails on my couch. When we opened the store, we there 24/7 for probably the first six months. Many of our friends told us that it takes about a year to really get to know your kitchen and really get into a groove, and we thought that was crazy since we’re a 300-foot quick service restaurant. We thought it would take us three months before it would be able to run on its own, but it wasn’t until after a year, almost to the day, that we felt that that the store was on a schedule and that everything could run on its own.
We chose a location that does not have any foot traffic. There were no businesses on either side of us, or on the block, really. We wanted to be the first ones in there and start this trend, and we were a little bit correct. Places like Grub Street and the Wall Street Journal will go to community board meetings to see who is applying for liquor licenses to see what new stores are coming. They saw we were opening there and all of a sudden there were two articles about Kenmare Street being the new restaurant row. It was exactly what we wanted, but it didn’t happen until a couple months ago. We have been the sole business on our block for two years.
At the markets, our stands always have lines. It’s amazing. But after a year, our store did not. Our store was losing money for the first year and a half, but because we were doing so many mobile locations, it was like our prep home. It became an afterthought to us. We were in the red, we had to evaluate the whole business. Our physical location was sucking us dry. The first year was so hard. We put everything into this tiny store. We had such a successful year, but we had no money because of the store. We realized we really needed to focus on the store.
So we just did the basic stuff, like putting a chalkboard sign outside. We didn’t even have regular signage for the first few months. But it all works in bringing in the random people. It took us a year to realize that we should do delivery, so now we do it and our businesses has doubled. It wasn’t until this past November that we realized that since we have so many regulars who come in three times a week, maybe they don’t always want hot dogs. So we extended our menu to include salads and sandwiches and healthier options and more sides, so that business has doubled. We’re up 200% from even last year.
Asiadog is part of the Scion Partners program.