Mark Raphaelson insists that everybody has a hot dog story. Here’s one of his.
A few years ago, at the “Taste of Delaware” event staged by Sen. Chris Coons down in Washington D.C., Raphaelson set up his grill and started cooking up some treats from his Johnnie’s Dog House in Talleyville, Del. The late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg came over for a taste and was delighted. “He said it was the best hot dog he ever had,” Raphaelson says.
Lautenberg went and found New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, figuring a Big Apple guy would like to try one. Schumer was impressed, too.
So was Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Coons had told him about the delectable dogs, and McCain couldn’t resist, either. A photo of Raphaelson and the senator hangs on the wall of Johnnie’s Dog House, right there beside about 300 other shots of happy customers. It’s a cross-section of Delaware life: Vice President Joe Biden, professionals alongside laborers, men and women, black and white. And kids. Lots of kids.
“When I first got into this, somebody told me to look into the parking lot, and I would see BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and jalopies,” Raphaelson says. “We have electricians and plumbers sitting beside lawyers. At lunchtime, you’ll see some of the wealthiest people in Delaware here. We get major workout fanatics who come in here for a guilty pleasure.”
Since it opened seven years ago, Johnnie’s has become a go-to destination for hot dog lovers in the Wilmington area and into Pennsylvania. Raphaelson has channeled his family’s historic entrepreneurial spirit to create a spot that caters to America’s long-time love of the popular member of the sausage family. Customers line up for an old-fashioned grilled version, or they might sample the Coney Island variety. The particularly brave take the Delaware Destroyer challenge—two hot dogs on a hoagie roll with macaroni and cheese, chili, onions, and hot sauce.
Then there’s the triathlon version, which tests the stomach’s limits with three pounds of food, including a Junkyard Double Burger, a Delaware Destroyer, a Jumbo Tijuana Dog and a serving of fried Oreo cookies. Double that up, and you have The Ironman.
“Only one guy did [The Ironman], and he was a competitive eater,” Raphaelson says.
You can go Hawaiian (potato chips and pineapple), Wisconsin (American and cheddar cheeses) or Tijuana (jalapeno and short peppers, onions, and hot sauces). Johnnie’s offers burgers, sausage and pulled-pork sandwiches, plus the Grilled Cheese Destroyer, with mac and cheese, pulled pork and bacon. You’re on your own with the antacid.
It’s a broad menu and the kind of selection that recalls drive-in restaurants from the 1950s. Johnnie’s’ décor reflects that era, with bright-orange walls and red chair rails in the dining area. It’s a classic hot dog joint, only with much more charm than the average fast-food stop.
And Raphaelson is clearly a hands-on manager. He lists his cell phone number and personal email on the back of the menu, asking for comments and recommendations. He’s practically always on site, even though Johnnie’s is open seven days and 65 hours a week.
He’s owner, quality-control inspector, shift supervisor, maître d’ and head of PR. Raphaelson loves to mingle with the customers and finds it practically impossible to resist the opportunity to chat. If he’s away from Johnnie’s for a little while, he’ll want to know if anyone has asked for him. If the answer is no, he’s borderline incredulous. “He talks to a lot of people,” one employee reports.
Raphaelson tries to stay away from politics, but he loves debating the issues. “We enjoy Mark’s participation in our annual Taste of Delaware event in Washington every year,” says Sen. Coons. “Johnnie’s Doghouse is always one of the more popular stops for our guests, and I think Mark and his team enjoy the experience of visiting D.C.”
Raphaelson spent 17 years as a manufacturer’s rep for a carpet-and-flooring company before opening Johnnie’s, though it’s hardly strange that he chose the path he did. His maternal great-grandfather, Louis Handloff, and grandfather, Herman, opened National 5&10 on Main Street in Newark in 1931, and Raphaelson’s cousins still operate the business. The Handloffs also ran the State Theater—“The first movie theater in the country with air conditioning,” according to Raphaelson—and Jackson’s Hardware, both in Newark, along with WNRK radio. Meanwhile, Raphaelson’s paternal grandfather, Lewis, and his father, Martin, ran American Scrap and Waste Removal for 75 years.
None of it was quite the same as a hot dog stand, but the same soul runs through them all. “I always wanted to have a business,” Raphaelson says.
He remembers his grandfather letting disadvantaged neighborhood children come into the 5&10 at Christmas and pick out something at no cost. Raphaelson extends that same generous spirit to his employees. “My cooks have been with me since the
beginning,” he says.
In October, Raphaelson went to one of their weddings—one of 300 in attendance. “It felt like my daughter was being married,” he says.
Raphaelson’s desire to build a family environment at Johnnie’s means customers come to a warm, welcoming restaurant. While all of that—not to mention Raphaelson’s role as emcee—is great, it’s about the food. Beginning this fall, Raphaelson will unveil a new menu line that he promises will “take us to the next level.”
And not just any fried chicken. Raphaelson believes the stuff is so good that it will quickly surpass hot dogs as Johnnie’s’ top seller. It could also clear the way for substantial growth and future franchising.
Raphaelson claims that “it brings tears to my eyes” when he eats the stuff, and he can’t wait to christen Johnnie’s Dog House and Chicken Shack by serving this free-range delight with a full selection of sides.
“When I tell you this is the best chicken around, I mean it,” he says.
The future is bright for Raphaelson and Johnnie’s. Just about everybody loves hot dogs—there are vegetarian dogs, sausages and burgers for those so inclined—and fried chicken rarely fails, particularly if it’s as good as Raphaelson says it is. Soon, there will be chicken stories to go along with dog tales. And Raphaelson will be in the middle of it, chatting up the customers, making plans and carrying on four generations of family entrepreneurship.
And wowing them in D.C.