Sponsored by Ventura Foods
“Unlock your brain, and you can take anything and make it a sausage. You could take any dish and make it a taco.”- Cheryl Drummond
“The more flexible and reasonable that you are, the better the work is. You come in happy, it's contagious.”- Hagop Giragossian
There are questions that haunt the culinary world for decades, and perhaps none as vexing as those two ancient ones... are tacos and hot dogs considered sandwiches? Whether you fall on the side of any hand-held food comprised of a filling surrounded by a carb automatically being a “sandwich,” or are steadfast in your belief that both tacos and hot dogs are fundamentally their own unique entities and impossible to define more broadly, one thing is eminently clear: Both of these iconic street foods are here to stay and delivering satisfaction to the masses on the daily. So, we thought it was only appropriate to bring together two people who are doing it better than anyone at a large scale. Cheryl Drummond, senior director of culinary innovation at Torchy’s Tacos, sat down virtually with Hagop Giragossian, partner and co-founder of Dog Haus, to talk about what it means to dial in on the concept of “craft casual” and how to celebrate the versatility of their core products.
HG: Before we start, I have to tell you something. About a month ago, I was going to go to Austin with some friends and just go to eat, right? I was leaving and my son, he's 8, he's looking at me and he's like, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I'm gonna go to Texas for work.’ And he's like, ‘Who are you meeting with?’ And I said, ‘I don't have any meetings.’ I said, ‘There's this place called Torchy’s Tacos that I wanna check out and a place called Velvet Taco. They seem like they're doing pretty cool things. I feel like they have similarities to Dog Haus.’ And he's like, ‘So, you're gonna go to Texas with your friends to go eat at restaurants and that’s work?’ And I was like, ‘That is work.’ And he looked at me and he opened up his arms and fell on me. And he hugged me, and I felt like, is this the day? Is this the moment that my son learned where your passion and work come into play, and it stops being work? I get goosebumps thinking about it because that's an amazing thing. An amazing lesson for him to learn.
CD: That is everything.
HG: And it really resonated for me because when you're asked, ‘Where did we start? How did we know?’ It always starts with the story of why I loved food. My family loves food. It's a huge part of our lives. You know, my story is different. I went to college, got a graduate degree in psychology. I graduated college, got into sales and quickly went into business with my best buddy, we took over his dad's powder coating business, and it was fun be in business with your friend. We had saved a couple of bucks and we went, and we bought a restaurant and we created this concept for Mediterranean small plates. Owning a restaurant when you are not from the industry is a unique opportunity where every single person who works there has probably worked in a restaurant before and has just loads more experience than you. It was a huge failure. But what happened was, I fell in love with it. I was really passionate about food because of my upbringing. And I realized that if I was going to do this, and I wanted to continue to do it, then I needed to learn more about it and I needed to have needed to demystify what it was like, to be a chef and to cook. Because it seemed so like an insurmountable task. I always felt ill-prepared. So I went to a local culinary school that had just opened up. I did that while I was still running the business, running the restaurant. And while we did that, as I felt a lot more comfortable, and now I can, you know, kind of do the things that I felt like I could do. And my partner Cosham and I and our other partner, Andre Venter, created the Dog Haus idea and never looked back. It is just strangely gratifying to make something simple like a hot dog or a hamburger or a taco and when somebody eats it and they just love it. You can feel amazing about it.
CD: I love the similarities in the parallels in our stories. We both went to an obscure culinary school, mine’s a community college, after pursuing something completely different. I don't know what yours was, but that's very cool.
HG: Yeah, one of the one of the instructors, longtime instructors of the Cordon Bleu here, which was in Pasadena for a long time, went off and opened up his own program. And it was about a year long. It wasn't as extensive as some, probably not as extensive as yours, but I felt great, you know, getting in there, learning the build. Yeah. Learning the base and then feeling really comfortable being in a kitchen.
CD: That is so important. That confidence it gives you. When I started at Torchy's 10 years ago, I came in to standardize the recipes. You know, really do an analysis on the food-safety program. Find out how Torchy's can be better, and never move away from our scratch cooking and our scratch ideas. And we call ourselves “craft casual” now. We're cooking food to order. It involves fresh tortillas, combi ovens, tortilla machines. I'm making fresh tortillas and trying to find out what else I can make from scratch. It is little bit of an anomaly, so we definitely don't fit in with the fast casual world, but “craft casual” feels like something we can keep focused on and make our guests really happy.
HG: Funny thing, you just mentioned craft casual. I feel like I think we were the ones who coined that phrase about nine years ago!
CD: Love it!
HG: It is pretty cool to hear somebody of your caliber and Torchy’s caliber start using it because we're big fans of yours! I will say I found it really refreshing to hear you say that you’re kind of bucking the trends. Everybody's looking to cut costs. You going in the direction of really wanting to make food from scratch, made to order fresh tortillas. I mean, what's literally better on planet Earth than a fresh tortilla? I think that's an amazing direction. I personally believe that's the right direction. Creating better quality and better experiences in a time where we are all struggling a bit through, you know, the cost of goods and you know, just life in general.
CD: Yeah, it's definitely hard to communicate that. You know, one of the first things you learn as a chef is that the best food comes from the best ingredients. And for me, from an ideation and innovation standpoint, that is the message to the guest. That's what good food is, right? Receiving the great food at the back door. And turning it into something that people are gonna appreciate the quality and appreciate the fact that something is scratch made and it's just a fine line to walk.
HG: But also, we have so much creative freedom in what we do. Unlock your brain, and you can take anything and make it a sausage. You could take any dish and make it a taco, right? It's pretty fun. Our whole point is we love to cook, we love to eat. Our franchisee community is amazing at being nimble with us and being excited. I hate to use the word innovation because it's not like we're going to space or anything. And we love to work with people who are making amazing stuff.
CD: Same for us. There’s a sausage company in Ponder, Texas, that Syracuse sausage that makes a jalapeno sausage for us that is amazing.
HG: Well, that's funny because we have one sausage on our menu that's not made by us and it's that sausage!
CD: Are you serious?
HG: Yeah, it's the first. When we moved into Richardson, Texas, I believe it was like 6 years ago. They wanted to do something that was like unique to Dallas. And so, we called it the Big D and that's the sausage that's on it. Super successful. And Syracuse are really great, nice people.
CD: Of course, we know people in common! This is how this works. What do you put on the sausage?
HG: I think it's a bacon wrapped hot dog with cotija cheese, chipotle, mayo and avocado. All done on that, you know, on that jalapeno cheddar sausage which is delicious.
CD: You know at home when we make hot dogs, we do bacon dogs, we wrap them in bacon and then put pico on them.
HG: That's what we're going to do. A collaboration between Torchy’s and Dog Haus!
CD: Is this an ideation session or an interview?
HG: I just want to go cook now! But then I get home and my wife wants to know what is for dinner, and I’m not hungry because I’ve been tasting all day.
CD: You know from a work life balance perspective, there are things that are demanded. I do try and take that down time, and I try to have date night once a week with my wife.
HG: I think it's very similar. I run culinary ops, we don't have the time the day starts, and we don't have the time the day ends. You know, I think cool thing is like as I was like listening to you talk is and if we're talking about chefs and you know, what type of career paths they can take, how cool is it that you're in a place now that you're still doing what you love? You're still making amazing food, but you're doing it in a in a lifestyle that really is a lot more conducive to a happy, fulfilling life. If you're happy when you leave work, if you're happy at the thought of what you do, you know you're a better sibling. You're better spouse. You're a better parent. I just want to create an environment where people enjoy working.
CD: I really like to try to give people what they want to. The more flexible and reasonable that you are, the better the work is. And like you said, you come in happy, it's contagious. I'm always fighting for the little guy. I'm always wanting to help people. You come in happy, you love what you do and you treat your people well and love your people, they're not gonna call out on you. They're gonna help you.
HG: At least now you know we have that ability to give more flexibility and I think that's also creating better work environments for people.
CD: I'm just hopeful about our growth.
HG: Yeah, I'm excited as well. We're excited for growth. We're excited to continue to build out the menu.
CD: Hot dogs and tacos.
HG: Hot dogs and tacos!
The MenuMasters program was founded by both Nation’s Restaurant News and Ventura Foods in 1997, with the inaugural event held in May of 1998.
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