Sponsored by Ventura Foods
“Unlock your brain, and you can take anything and make it into a sausage. You can take any dish and turn it into a taco. – Cheryl Drummond
“The more flexible and reasonable you are, the better the job. You come home happy, it’s contagious. – Hagop Giragossian
There are questions that have haunted the culinary world for decades, and perhaps none as frustrating as these two old ones…are tacos and hot dogs considered sandwiches? Whether you fall for any handheld food consisting of a topping surrounded by a carb automatically being a “sandwich,” or you’re convinced that tacos and hot dogs are basically their own entities unique and impossible to define more Generally speaking, one thing is abundantly clear: these two iconic street foods are here to stay and bring satisfaction to the masses every day. So we thought it was fair to bring together two people who do it better than anyone on a large scale. Cheryl Drummond, Senior Director of Culinary Innovation at Torchy’s Tacos, spoke virtually with Hagop Giragossian, partner and co-founder of Dog Haus, to talk about what it means to connect with the concept of “casual craftsmanship” and how to celebrate the versatility of their flagship products.
HG: Before I start, I have to tell you something. About a month ago I was going to go to Austin with some friends and just go eat, right? I was leaving and my son, he is 8 years old, he looks at me and he says to me: ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Texas for work.’ And he’s like, ‘Who are you meeting?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have any meetings.’ I said, ‘There’s this place called Torchy’s Tacos that I want to check out and a place called Velvet Taco. They seem to do some pretty cool stuff. I feel like they have similarities to Dog Haus. And he said, ‘So you’re going to Texas with your friends to eat out and that’s work?’ And I was like, ‘This is work.’ And he looked at me and he opened his arms and fell on top of me. And he hugged me, and I thought, is this the day? Is this the moment my son learned where your passion and work comes in, and it stops being work? I get goosebumps thinking about it because it’s an amazing thing. An incredible lesson to teach him.
CD: That’s it.
HG: And that really resonated with me because when people ask you, “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 from college, got into sales, and quickly got into business with my best friend. We took over the powder coating business from his dad and it was fun doing business with your friend. We had saved a few dollars and we went there, and we bought a restaurant and we created this concept of Mediterranean small plates. Owning a restaurant when you’re not part of the industry is a unique opportunity where everyone who works there has probably worked in a restaurant before and just has more experience than you. It was a huge failure. But what happened is that 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 keep doing it, then I needed to learn more and I needed to demystify what it was, to be a chef and to cook. Because it felt like such an insurmountable task. I always felt unprepared. So I went to a local culinary school that had just opened. I did it while I was still running the business, running the restaurant. And while we were doing that, I felt a lot more comfortable, and now I can, you know, kind of do the things that I thought I could do. And my partner Cosham and I and our other partner, Andre Venter, came up with the idea of Dog Haus and never looked back. It’s just weirdly rewarding to make something simple like a hot dog or a hamburger or a taco and when someone eats it and they love it. You can feel amazing about it.
CD: I like the similarities in the parallels of our stories. We both went to an obscure culinary school, mine is a community college, after pursuing something completely different. I don’t know what yours was, but it’s very cool.
HG: Yeah, one of the instructors, longtime Le Cordon Bleu instructors here, who had been in Pasadena for a long time, left and started his own program. And it lasted about a year. It wasn’t as extensive as some, probably not as extensive as yours, but it felt good to, you know, get in there, learn the build. Yeah. Learn the basics and feel really comfortable in a kitchen.
CD: It’s so important. That confidence it gives you. When I started at Torchy 10 years ago, I came to standardize the recipes. You know, really do an analysis of the food security program. Find out how Torchy’s can be better, and never stray from our scratch kitchen and scratch ideas. And we now call ourselves “craft casual”. We prepare meals to order. These are fresh tortillas, combi ovens, tortilla machines. I make fresh tortillas and try to figure out what else I can make from scratch. It’s a bit of an anomaly, so we certainly don’t fit into the fast casual world, but craft casual is something we can stay focused on and make our customers really happy.
HG: Funny thing, you just mentioned casual crafting. I feel like we coined that phrase about nine years ago!
CD: I love it!
HG: It’s pretty cool to hear someone of your caliber and Torchy’s caliber start using it because we’re big fans of you! I will say that I found it really refreshing to hear you say that you are going a little against the trend. Everyone is looking to cut costs. You’re going in the direction of really wanting to make food from scratch, made-to-order fresh tortillas. I mean, what is literally better on planet earth than a fresh tortilla? I think that’s an incredible direction. I personally think this is the right direction. Creating better quality and better experiences in a time when we’re all struggling a bit with, 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 to me, from an ideation and innovation perspective, that’s the message to the customer. That’s good food, isn’t it? Receive good food at the back door. And turn it into something that people are going to appreciate the quality of and appreciate that something is handmade 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 into a sausage. You could take any dish and turn it into a taco, right? It’s rather fun. Our whole point is that we love to cook, we love to eat. Our franchise community is amazing to be nimble with us and enthusiastic. I hate to use the word innovation because it’s not like we’re going to space or anything. And we love working with people who do amazing things.
CD: Same for us. There’s a sausage company in Ponder, Texas, this Syracuse sausage that makes us a jalapeno sausage that’s amazing.
HG: Well, it’s funny because we have a sausage on our menu that’s not made by us and it’s this sausage!
CD: Are you serious?
HG: Yeah, that’s the first one. When we moved to Richardson, Texas, I believe it was 6 years ago. They wanted to do something unique in Dallas. And so, we called it the Big D and it’s the sausage that’s on it. Super successful. And Syracuse are really great and nice people.
CD: Of course, we know people in common! That’s how it works. What do you put on the sausage?
HG: I think it’s a bacon wrapped hot dog with cotija cheese, chipotle, mayonnaise and avocado. It’s all done on that, you know, on that jalapeno cheddar sausage that’s delicious.
CD: You know at home when we make hot dogs, we make bacon dogs, we wrap them in bacon and then we put pico on them.
HG: That’s what we’re going to do. A collaboration between Torchy’s and Dog Haus!
CD: Is it an ideation session or an interview?
HG: I just want to go cooking now! But then I come home and my wife wants to know what’s 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 required. I try to take that time out, and I try to have a date once a week with my wife.
HG: I think it’s very similar. I run kitchen operations, we don’t have the time when the day begins and we don’t have the time at the end of the day. You know, I think what’s cool is like I’m like listening to you talk and if we’re talking about chefs and you know, what kind of career path they can follow, how cool is that that you are in a place now that you still do what you love? You’re still making amazing food, but you’re doing it in a lifestyle that’s really much more conducive to a happy, fulfilled life. If you’re happy when you leave work, if you’re happy thinking about what you’re doing, you know you’re a better brother. You are the best spouse. You are a better parent. I just want to create an environment where people like to work.
CD: I really like trying to give people what they want. The more flexible and reasonable you are, the better the job. And like you said, you arrive happy, it’s contagious. I always fight for the little guy. I always want to help people. You come in happy, you love what you do and you treat your people well and you love your people, they’re not going to call you. They will help you.
HG: At least now you know that we have this ability to give more flexibility and I think that also creates better working environments for people.
CD: I’m just hopeful about our growth.
HG: Yeah, I’m excited too. We are delighted with the growth. We are excited to continue to expand the menu.
CD: Hot dogs and tacos.
HG: Hot dogs and tacos!
The MenuMasters program was founded by Nation’s Restaurant News and Ventura Foods in 1997, with the inaugural event taking place in May 1998.
The Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters Awards, sponsored by Ventura Foods, is a highly respected competition that honors leaders in menu research and development for their personal achievements and contributions to the restaurant industry.
MenuMasters Spotlight is a monthly communication featuring stories that tap into the most creative minds in menu innovation and how their passion for food is driving their success in business and in life.
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