WILMINGTON—Austin Herndon and Amanda Chason will be prepping 100 or so pounds of lobster for Wilmington’s launch of the food truck Lobster Dogs on Sunday. The franchised mobile eatery will make its debut with lobster, crab and shrimp rolls at Flying Machine Brewing Company on Jan. 3 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
“It’s the most people we’ve ever served, if they all show up,” Herndon said.
Herndon uses the standard metric of expecting 10% or 15% of “interested” Facebook followers to turn out. 2,000 have responded, which he thinks will be around 200 people or so. It will top the 150 the young couple served in one day in the Asheville area earlier in 2020.
Herndon’s stepfather, John Suttle, franchised his first Lobster Dogs in the mountainous region in September 2019, and Herndon and Chason ran it for the family. They operated the truck on the weekdays, while Suttle and his wife, Jennifer — who also oversee another family business — would come up on weekends to help.
No one except Chason and Suttle’s wife had restaurant experience. But as a businessman, Suttle said the opportunity was too good to pass up — plus, the concept hit close to home.
Lobster Dogs began when Suttle’s childhood friend, Chris Yelton, came up with the concept in 2015. At first Suttle had interest in being a business partner, but Yelton, he said, was a go-getter and really wanted to mold the concept on his own. Once it took off and Yelton began franchising, Suttle bought in as the first franchisee.
“It was a no-brainer for us because we were there watching him grow from the ground level,” Suttle said.
Today there are nine Lobster Dogs franchises, with six in North Carolina, and others heading into Atlanta, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
The menu is simple but fresh — in fact, all items are served cold, meaning the upfit of the trucks don’t require bulky equipment like flat-top grills and deep fryers. “That’s one thing that was appealing to us at the beginning,” Suttle said about the overhead and business costs.
According to Herndon all the seafood is ordered to arrive daily. The lobster comes from Maine, snow crab from Alaska, and the shrimp comes just off the coast of North Carolina. The proteins are served in a toasted split-top bun, smeared with mayonnaise, stuffed with 3 ounces (or 5 if customers upgrade to a “big dog”) of lobster, shrimp or crab, topped with melted butter and special seasonings.
“We also have stuffed avocados,” Chason said.
“They’re called ‘Plan B,’” Herndon chimed in. “They’re her favorite.”
“Yeah, we just take the avocado, and we stack it up like a bowl and top it off,” Chason said. “They’re pretty filling, gluten-free and can be made for vegetarians.”
Plan B comes with choice of chilled shrimp, lobster or crab, topped with black bean-corn salsa, pico de gallo, chimichurri and chipotle ranch. Or diners can choose knock-offs of Plan B, with a Buffalo chicken version, “Free Bird,” still chilled but served with bacon bits and ranch, or the seared tuna option, topped with queso fresco and sesame ginger sauce.
Prices of rolls and avocado stacks range from $11 to $16.95 ($5 more for “big dog” options).
“We’ve got a couple new menu items that the franchise is working on now,” Chason said. “They will be unveiled later this month.”
According to Suttle, despite opening right ahead of a worldwide pandemic, Lobster Dogs has been a good business investment. Because the truck is mobile, they’ve had an easier time adapting.
“Instead of working at bars and breweries when they were shut down, we were able to go to the neighborhoods and apartment complexes, to bring the food directly to people whenever they didn’t want to get out of their homes and go out,” he said.
Herndon and Chason already have been reaching out to local bars, breweries, distilleries, event spaces, neighborhoods and HOAs to secure the first month’s schedule. They plan to be operating Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, with some Tuesdays added in as well. Suttle also wants his trucks at festivals and fairs, something he had planned on in 2020 until Covid-19 canceled events.
“So, we really don’t have an idea of what a normal growth is in this business,” he iterated. “But we were still able to make it profitable enough to open up a second franchise.”
Suttle isn’t looking to franchise a third operation — though he may add a second truck to the Wilmington area. He said Herndon and Chason as his operations managers will be working the entire coast of North Carolina, from Surf City to Calabash. If a second truck is needed, eventually, and with more staff, they’ll cross that bridge when they get there.
For Herndon and Chason, they’re happy to be living near the beach. Wilmington always was on their radar from family vacations spent here.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Herndon said, “we loved Asheville. Only problem was, we lived in Charlotte. So we drove two hours up and two hours down every single day. We’re looking forward to not doing that again.”
Lobster Dogs’ weekly schedule can be found on their Facebook page and every Monday morning as part of Port City Daily’s Food Truck Tracker.
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