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Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller

Bernie’s Hot Dog Co.
Hot dog, although not from Bernie's.
Photo is not a product of Bernie’s Hot Dog Co. / © 2009 Jupiterimages corporation

Though the hot dog is all-American, regional preferences on the proper way to prepare one abound. Joe and Su Zemla’s eatery, Bernie’s Hot Dog Co., pays tribute to them all.

In Detroit, where Joe Zemla grew up, the traditional Detroit Coney dog is topped with an all-meat chili, diced yellow onion, and yellow mustard. People garnish franks with guacamole in Southern California, Su Zemla’s old stomping grounds. New York street vendors add tomato onion sauce, while Chicagoans like their dogs with tomato wedges, bright green relish, and a dash of celery salt.

Bernie’s serves them all. Chili, diced onions, and yellow mustard are piled on the 8 Mile dog, named for the stretch of Detroit highway made famous by rap superstar Eminem. The P.C.H. (Pacific Coast Highway) dog is heaped with guacamole, diced tomatoes, and a slice of bacon. Denver natives gravitate to the Colfax dog, which is loaded with green chilies, diced tomatoes, and shredded cheddar cheese.

But while five hot dog concoctions are featured, “Just how you like ’em” is the self-purported theme of the menu. Customers can choose either a six-inch beef-and-pork or a foot-long all-beef frankfurter, then select from nearly 40 toppings, including unexpected garnishes like blue cheese crumbles and grilled mushrooms.

Bernie’s also sells Spicy Polish sausage, smoked German sausage, sweet Italian sausage, and sun-dried tomato and pesto chicken sausage. Regardless of which dog the customer chooses, he or she can watch a Bernie’s employee take the selection straight off the grill and dress it while it’s still hot.

“We want to break the stereotype,” says Joe Zemla, who, with Su, spent three years developing the Bernie’s concept.

To that end, the menu also includes salads. Bernie’s signature offering features candied pecans, blue cheese crumbles, and dried cranberries on a bed of field greens dressed with a honey-raspberry vinaigrette. The concept’s version of the chopped salad is a hearty mix of smoked bacon, cannellini beans, and shredded mozzarella cheese, cucumbers, green onion, tomatoes, lettuces, and fresh basil with a dressing of roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette.

“We spin them to order in front of our guests,” Zemla says.

The look of Bernie’s is unexpected, too. Checkered tablecloths are eschewed, along with the traditional hot dog stand’s lack of variety and poor service. The restaurant, not quite 1,300 square feet, is decorated in graphic shades of red and green, with touches of stainless steel. Black-and-white close ups of canines decorate one wall.

Zemla shot the photos at a dog shelter and picked his favorites from about 1,000 shots, and customers are encouraged to post pictures of their pooches on a magnet board across from the soda-dispensing machine.

The dining area offers seating for 33 people, while the 50-seat patio offers a view of the Rocky Mountains.

Despite the picturesque surroundings, diners don’t go to Bernie’s for a quiet meal. Music blasting from stereo speakers and cartoons and sporting events on four flat-screen TVs keep the place hopping.

“We wanted to create a fun, funky atmosphere,” Zemla says.

Hiring the right employees was also key to crafting the right ambiance for Bernie’s customers.

Bernie's Hot Dog Co.

CO-FOUNDERS: Joe and Su Zemla

HQ: Highlands Ranch, Colorado

YEAR STARTED: 2008

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 1

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

www.bernieshotdogs.com

“We can teach people food safety and how to make our food, but we can’t teach people how to smile or have a good personality,” Zemla says. “We’re hiring smiles and personalities. We talk to our staff about reading body language. We train staff to ask people how they’re doing. If people say, ‘It’s OK,’ ask them why isn’t it great. We visit guests at their tables.”

The result is a fun, family-friendly experience for customers.

Parents appreciate that Bernie’s kids’ menu includes economical options. For $3.29, kids can get a Bernie dog, turkey dog, or mini corn dogs with fries and a fountain drink.

“We’re also getting positive feedback on our pricing,” Zemla says. Bernie’s was featured on the blog for 5280, Denver’s local magazine, as one of the area’s best cheap eats. But that doesn’t add up to minimal profits for the store.

“For what we’re offering and our margins, we feel good,” Zemla says. The average ticket ranges from $8.50 to $9 per person.

Since Bernie’s opened in December, the Zemlas have been pleasantly surprised by the brisk business. In fact, Zemla thinks the restaurant could generate close to $1 million in sales in its first year.

Down the road, the owners plan to open more stores. With that goal in mind, they’ve reinforced their brand through the menuboards, logo, uniforms, and cups. The look is professional enough that Joe is often asked if Bernie’s is part of a chain.

“We didn’t want people to think this was a mom-and-pop joint run by people with no experience in the industry,” Zemla says.