When you think baseball, key imagery that pops up is the crack of a bat that sends the ball sailing over the shortstop’s head, a young starlet given the opportunity to sing the national anthem before the game, food vendors peddling overpriced beer, ice cream in the mini batting helmets and, of course, hot dogs.
Bob Cutler, the director of baseball operations at the University of Maine, is a native of Arizona and has coached baseball in four different states. His exposure to different types of ballpark food have given him the desire to own his own hot dog restaurant.
On Nov. 27, 2012, that dream came to fruition as he opened the doors of The Family Dog at 6 Mill St., the former home of Lissus Pizza.
Along with business partner Keith Manaker, who owns Harvest Moon Deli in downtown Orono, Cutler started planning The Family Dog during summer 2012.
“At the time, I just wanted to do a little stand [with] enough room for like six people and [Manaker] wanted to do a much bigger burger joint in Bangor,” Cutler said. “Over a [period] of two weeks, we went from talking about goals to laying out a business plan and finding a space and everything else.”
While The Family Dog is one of Cutler’s dreams, it’s not an original idea, not even for Orono — College Dogs, another hot dog restaurant, opened its doors in March of 2012 and had a decent start before it shut down. What may have seemed like a bad omen for Cutler’s restaurant was actually a disappointment to him, but not because of business worries.
“I was actually hoping they were going to be open when we opened so people could try both and then decide which one was better,” Cutler said. “That’s how confident I am in every product that we serve.”
The hot dogs served at The Family Dog are made with natural casing, 100 percent beef, no filler and no gluten.
“I believe Vienna Beef out of Chicago makes the best hot dog,” Cutler said. “So we have Vienna Beef hot dogs, Vienna Beef sausages, Vienna Beef buns [and] Vienna Beef condiments.
“People will come in and have expectations of a red hot dog, [and] some people are disappointed we don’t carry the red hot dog. They try ours, and they no longer have that disappointment,” Cutler said.
Once they opened their doors, customers started filing in, and The Family Dog got off to a hot start.
“It’s been really good. Better than we expected, I think,” general manager Laurie Merrill said. “We’ve been very well received, [and we’ve had] a lot of return business.”
A lot of the restaurant’s business has come from college students, which Cutler believes is because of how student friendly the restaurant is.
“I think one of the things we’re most excited about is the student body really jumped in,” Cutler said. “Part of it is we offer some great deals for them. [On] Wednesday nights, we do Wicked Weenie Wednesdays, so it’s buy one dog at regular price, get the next one half price — and that goes for sausages and hot dogs. That’s a great deal.”
The Family Dog is also open until 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, so it serves as a good destination for hungry students to check out after the local bars close for the night.
Although early business was strong, the winter break that started a few weeks after opening was helpful for the restaurant.
“The students went away for break, which was perfect timing because we were able to regroup — add a few things to our menu, take a few things off our menu, do a few things a little differently with our staffing, and fix some things to make us run more efficiently and more cost-effective — which in turn helps keep our price point down,” Cutler said.
New menu items include the chili cheese dog and the Bad Dog, which Cutler describes as “a hot dog wrapped in bacon and deep fried, smothered in homemade cheese sauce and topped in diced tomatoes.”
“I’m Jewish, and I want it,” Cutler added.
In addition to new food, The Family Dog is also rolling out new specials, including one that coincides with the end of the NHL lockout.
“Whenever a game is played after 7 p.m. […] any time anyone is in the penalty box in any of the games we’re showing, it’s dollar drafts during the penalty. [We’re] kind of rewarding people for breaking the rules,” Cutler said.
Cutler also said The Family Dog will run some sort of special to coincide with the start of UMaine’s baseball season, starting Feb. 15.
Aside from having quality food, Cutler feels there is importance in his customers feeling like they are at home at The Family Dog and like the restaurant is their own. One of the steps he’s taken to promote that philosophy is to always be open to suggestions from customers.
“People will throw something on Facebook, [saying something like,] ‘Hey, I think you should do such and such,’” Cutler said. “That’s how the Wicked Weenie Wednesday came about.”
The Family Dog also aims to be accommodating to customers, regardless of what they have going on at the moment.
“We’ve had people come in for study groups, and we give them the Wi-Fi password and they knock out an assignment or they work on something like that,” Cutler said. “We’ve had a couple people start a 21st birthday party here or start a social event here. Call us, we’ll help you reserve a spot if we can and cater to you. I’m incredibly flexible.”
At the end of the day, Cutler wants to make sure he is meeting his customers’ needs.
“If there’s something we’re not doing well, let us know. If there’s something we are doing well, let me know that twice,” he said.
One of those needs is for customers to enjoy themselves. Each table has a different game on it, like Jenga or Uno, to get groups of friends engaged with each other while enjoying their meals. Cutler says it’s nice to see people not constantly checking their phones while playing games together.
“It gives a focal point, much like a sporting event would do for me and my friends,” Cutler said. “There’s been some intense Jenga games, some intense Uno. It’s been fun.”
While it’s good to have happy customers, Cutler realizes having people linger may not be the best thing for business, although that doesn’t bother him much.
“Having somebody in the middle of a rush play a game of Jenga may not be the best thing for turning tables, but I’m OK with that,” Cutler said. “It’s a burger joint. It’s a hot dog joint. If you can’t take life a little more relaxed when you come into The Family Dog, then have another hot dog and take a deep breath.”
While a friendly environment and convenient location are both keys to the early success of The Family Dog, Cutler says that, ultimately, it’s the food that gets people inside.
“It’s hamburgers and hot dogs,” he said. “It’s grilled chicken sandwiches. It’s an amazing vegetarian option with a grilled Portobello mushroom and homemade black bean burger.”
“I think it works.”
For more information on The Family Dog, including business hours and special offers, visit their Facebook page.