Vancouver, BC: Vendor Takes Hot Dogs to ‘Next Level’

Here is the menu, if you were wondering what they have…

by RASHA MOURTADA | Globe and Mail

Here is the menu, if you were wondering what they have…

Hot dogs are a far cry from crepes, but you don’t have to tell Noriki Tamura that.

The former Tokyo ad salesman immigrated to Canada in 2005, along with his wife, Misa, to open a crepe stand on the streets of Vancouver. But their plan was quickly derailed by city bylaws, which limited Vancouver’s available street food to hot dogs.

He admits he felt some disappointment, but “I was excited by the challenge,” he says through a translator. “I knew there was more than just ketchup and mustard. I thought I could try something out of Japan, something different from the ordinary, and take hot dogs to the next level.”

He hadn’t eaten too many hot dogs before arriving in Canada, but that would soon change. “I experimented with different Japanese flavours at home,” he says. “We ate a lot of hot dogs when we came to Vancouver.”

In 2006, the couple won a spot for their first Japa Dog location through the city’s annual street-food lottery. The Tamuras manned the stand themselves, and witnessed customers’ attitudes shifting in favour of their $5 hot dogs garnished with condiments such as wasabi, teriyaki and seaweed – celebs Steven Seagal and Zac Efron have been spotted waiting in the queue with other hungry patrons. Subsequently, Vancouver eased the restrictions that had prevented street vendors from trying more ambitious fare, and last year, the city launched a pilot program introducing everything from dim sum to satay to tacos.

Mr. Tamura’s not too fussed about crepes. Since he acquired his first licence, he’s started up two more vending carts and a fast-food-style restaurant, and he now employs 30 people. He’s not planning to stop there, either. After crowds from around the world eagerly lined up for his sausages during the 2010 Olympics – as many as 100 people at a time, Mr. Tamura says – he plans to launch Japa Dog franchises in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto in 2011.

He’s not personally cooking as many hot dogs as he used to, “but I still eat at least one every day.”

Three things to know before you start

1. Be flexible. Instead of staying fixated on his initial plan, a crepe stand, Mr. Tamura went in an entirely different direction. “Some people lose sight of their goal to create a business because they can’t let go of their original idea, even if it’s not going to work.”

2. Embrace innovation. When Mr. Tamura opened his first Japa Dog stand, he had about 10 different hot dogs on his menu. Today, he has around 25. “You have to keep changing to stay competitive.”

3. Be resourceful. Mr. Tamura’s limited English made navigating the rules of starting a business in a new country that much more challenging. But every successful entrepreneur finds a way to prevail, he says. His advice to new Canadians who are learning the language? “Always carry a dictionary.”

By the numbers

$10,000: Amount the Tamuras invested in their first Japa Dog cart.

$10: Price of the most expensive hot dog – a Kobe beef sausage – on the Japa Dog menu.

80: Approximate number of Vancouver street food vendors.

400: Number of $5 Terimayo hot dogs a Japa Dog cart needs to sell in a month to break even.

This story originally appeared in the Your Business supplement in the April issue of Report on Business Magazine.