“Some people thought we were crazy. They’d ask, ‘So what are you guys gonna do?’ We’d say, ‘We’re gonna do hot dogs!’ And they were like, ‘Have you lost your fucking minds!?’” -Brandon Gillis
When Brandon Gillis, a Franny’s kitchen alum, and Josh Sharkey, a veteran cook at many of the city’s top restaurants, teamed up to open Bark Hot Dogs in Park Slope in the summer of 2009, a lot of people thought they were insane. Hot dogs!? Seriously!?
Brandon and Josh adopted the approach refined by Andrew Feinberg at Franny’s and set out to re-engineer the simple American classic by combining the finest ingredients available with an attention to detail you’d normally find applied to ‘hautier’ cuisine.
It worked. Why wouldn’t it? What evokes nostalgia for ball games, cookouts with family and friends, and summer forays to the beach for most of us more than a good ol’ hot dog? The reason some shy away these from the typical ‘dog is the dread of that ultra-processed mystery meat inside. At Bark, there is no mystery. Brandon and Josh have created fast food you can trust.
We met up with Brandon at Bark to find out just how the ‘haute’ dog came to be.
So Brandon, where are you from? How did you become interested in food?
I’m from Connecticut – the New Haven and Waterbury area. I’m from a big Italian-American family, so that’s where I naturally got involved with food, and I guess fell in love with it.
It was more of a spectator sport for me as a kid, but I’d go foraging for dandelions with my grandmothers and my aunts. We’d sneak into the state forests to pick wild mushrooms and that sort of stuff. My grandparents always had a vegetable garden. It was non-stop eating. We always had Sunday and holiday dinners together where we’d have 28 people packed into my Grandparents two bedroom apartment…it was insane.
Our family was really close. My grandmother and grandfather came over from Italy when they were very young. There’s a huge Italian population in New Haven. My grandfather had nine brothers and sisters and my grandmother had six, and they all stayed in the area. So every time you’d go anywhere you’d stop and visit someone and just eat.
I guess that’s where I picked up the interest in food.
When I went to college, I studied urban planning. I did some urban planning work after school for the town of Westport, and some consulting work. I was going to get my masters and my PhD but I kind of got bored with the office life.
After working in the field for a while I was like, “I’m ready to kill myself.” It wasn’t stimulating, it wasn’t challenging…there was a lot about it I didn’t like. The policy work moved very slowly. Seeing change…I’m one of those people who likes to see fast results. I like instant gratification – I’m a child of the nineties!
So I was looking for other things to do with my life. One day I happened to take at look at the French Culinary Institute website, and I kept going back and thinking about it more and more, and finally I decided that’s what I was going to do.
So that’s what brought me to New York.
The Culinary Institute was a kind of general one-year program. When I got here the economy was just starting to come back after 9/11, and I was really lucky. A lot of students were having a hard time finding jobs and even internships, but I was able to get a job at Tabla. I had been in culinary school for about a month, and I already had a job at a three-star restaurant! It was grueling, but completely eye opening. The learning curve at Tabla far outpaced school to the point that school actually became a little boring.
I started off working the bread bar – I was working the tandoori oven for a while which was pretty cool. After a few months they moved me to entremets in the kitchen, and I was there for about a year and a half, making hot apps, veg, and some fish and meat dishes for the station.
It gave me a lot of exposure. We had one person who would just do fish and all the fish sauces. I would do the veg and all the hot apps. Tabla was an Indian-influenced restaurant, so I got to work with a lot of ingredients I’d never seen before, coming from Connecticut. Like long beans – I’d never seen a long bean before working at Tabla. It was a great experience for me.
So did you ever screw anything up? Get yelled at?
Oh yeah. I remember when I first started working the entremets station I had the least amount of experience in the whole kitchen. We had this watermelon dish and for some reason I couldn’t cut the cubes of watermelon perfectly enough. Every day it was like, “No. This is wrong. Start over.” It was heartbreaking! I was really trying and it just wasn’t working, and I felt like I was wasting food…
Did you eventually master the watermelon?
I finally got there! I broke through!
What came after Tabla?
I took a couple of months off to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was staging in a few places. I was really thinking about how I was going to make a living. I thought about going into commercial real estate. And then I had another lucky break. I worked with Francine Stephens at Tabla. She had just opened up Franny’s just a few block from here on Flatbush. I said to my ex-wife, “We should check it out! I know Franny from Tabla.”
We went in and we had a really great meal. Really great. After dinner we went home and that night I was randomly looking for jobs and all of a sudden I saw a posting for a job at Franny’s. I called right away. I spoke to Andrew Feinberg, Franny’s husband and the chef. We BS-ed a little bit. He was like, “Come in tomorrow morning and we’ll chat.” So I came in the next morning and we talked for a while and hit it off. I was trailing that night, took the job, and I was there for almost five years.
How was it working there?
It changed everything for me. First and foremost, over our time working together Franny and Andrew became my two closest friends here in Brooklyn. I think that’s rare these days – that you have a true friendship develop out of work. We always cook and eat dinner together…They’re awesome.
Working with Andrew was really inspiring. When they started out it was very mom-and-pop. It was two people giving it everything they had. Working 16-17 hour days, while being really committed to the food and simplicity. It was inspiring.
There was a different way of carrying yourself in the kitchen too. It was intense, but it was more relaxed. We always said, “You don’t need a chef jacket to make great food.” We worked in cook shirts and shorts. None of the other things mattered. We had a very specific style of food we wanted to cook. We didn’t care whether we had four things on the menu or twelve things. It was always about making sure everything was great, and expressing all the ingredients simply and to the best of our abilities.
I think that’s one of the big things I learned from Andrew – maybe I shouldn’t worry about what else to add to the dish, maybe I should think about taking something out. You don’t need to have ten ingredients in a dish to make it great. You can have three things in a dish and make those three things work so well together, make them so harmonious that it’s even better than a really complex dish with all kinds of extra stuff.
Andrew taught me to take a step back, look at what we’re trying to achieve, and figure out a path to get there.
Franny’s is well known for their almost fanatical attention to sourcing ingredients. Was that new to you?
That’s something that’s always been really important to me. Growing up in Connecticut, my family had gardens and foraged and went to all the local farm stands all summer long. I had an uncle who lived right near Union Square, so every time we came to the city, which was once or twice a month, we’d go to the Greenmarket. Living here in New York, I’ve always been really into the Greenmarkets and the coop…
So I’ve always been aware of the difference good ingredients make, but seeing Franny and Andrew’s commitment to it did open my eyes. Going to the Greenmarket every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, picking all your produce, coming up with dishes to feature that produce…it’s a lot of work. It’s intense. It’s easy to get stuff delivered to the restaurant. It’s hard to take the other approach all the time.
What made you decide to leave Franny’s to open Bark?
I was at Franny’s for five years and watched it grow from this little mom and pop pizza shop to a really well known two-star restaurant. It was an amazing experience to be there with them through all that. I’m so proud to have been a part of that and to have become such good friends with them.
Andrew and I had started planning to open another restaurant. We were going to do a trattoria-type place here in Brooklyn. We did the whole business plan and everything, started working on it. But things kind of slowed down with the project. Franny had a baby and it didn’t seem like they’d really be ready with a baby and everything to get back into that mode for a while.
But all the planning had kind of given me the itch to do something. It gave me a great education in the preliminary stuff that needs to happen – writing a business plan and everything else you need to do in order to open a business. It fired up that planning instinct that I’d developed during all those years of studying urban planning and writing development plans for towns and cities. I just told them I was really feeling like doing something, and since it wasn’t going to happen with them at the time, I wanted to do something myself. They totally encouraged me to do it.
So how did you decide to do hot dogs of all things?
I know. Some people thought we were crazy. They’d ask, “So what are you guys gonna do?” We’d say, “We’re gonna do hot dogs!” And they were like, “Have you lost your fucking minds!?”
We were like, “No seriously, we’re going to do really good hot dogs!”
Franny and Andrew were so supportive. They were kept saying, “We think this is the greatest idea. You should do this. You have to do this.”
Working with them and being associated with Franny’s got me in touch with so many people in the neighborhood. That really helped us when we opened. There was a lot of support not only from them, but from a lot of the regulars at Franny’s.
Where did the whole hot dog idea come from? I worked with Josh Sharkey (Bark’s chef and co-owner) at Tabla. He was the first cook I became friends with. We had a little catering business on the side for a while, to cook our own food and make some extra money.
We were out one night – I think we were at Momofuku. We had a few beers and we left and we went to a few more places, and at some point, we were like, “Damn, why aren’t there any good hot dogs!? Why aren’t there any good hot dogs made with great locally-sourced meat?”
Crif Dogs was out there, but what they do is different than what we do and what we wanted to do. After that night we just kept talking and talking about it, and it shaped into a business. It turned into Bark.
But it wasn’t a total spur-of-the-moment thing. I come from Connecticut, and for some reason there are some crazy good hot dog places there. There was this place Frankie’s where I grew up in Waterbury. It was right down the street, on the way to and from the stadium where we played all our baseball games. So it was like baseball game, Frankie’s, baseball game, Frankie’s for years and years. Whatever you did, you’d end up at Frankie’s.
Was the original plan just to do great hot dogs? Was that what it was all about from the beginning?
Yeah. When we opened the menu was much smaller. We really had just hot dogs.
We just really wanted to make sure we could figure out how to do this…how to get all the food out – get the French fries right, the onion rings right. We just focused on getting the food right, and getting the system right – getting the food in and getting the food out. And it wasn’t easy!
One day right after we opened, there was a line out the door, and we turned to each other and said, “Who knew hot dogs would be so hard!?”
We were both experienced cooks. Making a great hot dog, making great French fries over and over turned out to be really hard! Hands down, Josh is one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever worked with. His technical skills and his palette are really second to none. He’s worked at Jean Georges, Bouley, Tabla, Oceana when Rick Moonen was there…I mean, he’s hands-down amazing. Any time I see him cook I’m amazed by his skill. And we were just totally caught off guard by how hard it was to get the food right! We’d be here until four o’clock in the morning, and we’d look at each other, and be like, “What’s going on? We’re doing hot dogs! We’re not supposed to be here until four AM working on hot dogs! It’s supposed to be this easy, simple thing!”
We just found out that when you’re distilling something down – trying to keep it really simple and traditional – that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
We wanted to keep it classic. Not pineapple and bacon and potato chips on a hot dog, or doing gourmet toppings. We wanted to do straight-up American classic artisan fast food with good ingredients. The biggest challenge was figuring out how we stay within those parameters while making it accessible and appealing to everyone.
How did you come up with the recipe?
So we started by doing hot dog research. We ate a lot of hot dogs. It was horrible! I’d go to Connecticut and bring some back. Josh would go to butchers – all the Polish shops in Greenpoint and places like that. We were tasting all these different hot dogs for days on end!
The worst part about it was that we were cooking all those hot dogs in my tiny apartment in the middle of the summer. It was just disgusting!
Eventually we had another lucky break. We were eating at this restaurant called Blaue Gans [Tribeca] – we were trying their sausages, and we were like, “Wow! These sausages are really great!”
Josh knew the sous chef there and he asked, “So do you guys make these sausages here? They’re really good.” And the guy said, “No, we get them from this guy upstate.” Josh was like, “Dude. We should call this guy and see if he has any hot dogs.”
So we did. The place is called Hartmann’s Old World Sausage. The guy’s name is Josef Brunner. He’s an eighth-generation Austrian sausage maker. He makes a great product and has all the integrity you could want.
He sent down a box of wieners, and they were sooo good. We were like, “This is it.” We knew we wouldn’t be able to keep up with making all our hot dogs here by ourselves. There was no way we could make a thousand pounds of hot dogs every week. So we worked with Josef and developed a recipe for our hot dogs. There was a lot of back and forth, but in the end I think we came up with a great recipe. People love it.
Where does the meat you use in the hot dogs come from?
It comes from a variety of sources. We’d like to be able to use all local, all natural meat all the time, but there are some real supply issues that make it very hard for a business like ours to find enough of that kind of meat to keep up with what we need.
It’s the challenge of trying to do business on a large scale. One of the big challenges for local farmers and the people trying to develop a local food system is really learning to scale up. There are all sorts of production, distribution and supply chain issues for small local producers. We work together on that. It’s definitely a collaborative effort to make things better. We want to make the supply chain for local, natural meats work so a business like ours can work exclusively with those sorts of producers and that sort of product.
But it’s really hard when you need to order something like a thousand pounds of meat every week and your distributor can’t always get you that. So it’s a challenge for us – we need to get our product out the door. Sometimes we’ve had to pick and choose to make sure we have enough product to keep the business running. Sometimes we have to use some commodity meat in the mix to ensure we’ve got enough to keep up with demand.
This is something I talk about a lot with Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods. He’s been a great resource for us. But there are real challenges out there in sourcing the type of meat we want use locally.
So how exactly does the sourcing work?
We work with distributors who work with specific farms. We get our eggs from a distributor called McMann’s – they represent a few different farms who produce chicken and eggs the way we want. Heritage Foods works with pork farmers who produce high-quality pork in a very specific, sustainable way. We get all of our pork from them. That’s usually how it works – you find a distributor who you trust and who represents producers you trust and you work with them as much as you can.
And we go to the Greenmarkets a lot for stuff like cucumbers for our pickles and things like that.
When did the veggie dog enter the picture?
We initially started off trying to make our own. But when we opened we found we couldn’t really keep up with it. We had a hard time keeping it really consistent because there was such a demand for it. I started researching veggie dogs, and just by luck found this company called the Field Roast Meat Grain Company out of Seattle. I asked for some samples and they sent them, and they were amazing. They were just better than anything we could make here.
We tried them, we loved them, and it didn’t taste like a fake soy product. That was really important to us. The topping for the veggie dog now is actually a deconstructed version the old veggie dog we started making here ourselves.
The veggie dog is really popular. It’s probably the third most popular item on the menu.
How’s it going with the location at Pier Six at Brooklyn Bridge Park?
Amazing. It’s been great. It’s so beautiful down there. If you catch it on the right night with the sunset and everything, you’re like, “Really?” It’s awe inspiring. It gives you this whole new perspective on New York City.
What’s on the horizon for Bark?
Not much right now. Opening that location at Brooklyn Bridge Park was a really big deal for us. It was essentially like opening another restaurant. We put that whole thing together in three or four weeks. It’s been a lot. We’ve learned a lot. But all in all, that’s where most of our energy has been going so far this year.
We’re just focused on always trying to tweak and improve our food and our service.
So what have you guys learned through all this?
When we opened Josh and I really wanted to make our own sauerkraut. We thought, “No problem. We’re gonna make sauerkraut.”
When we opened we probably had three hundred pounds of sauerkraut made. Two weeks after we opened it was gone. And it takes a month to cure! We scrambled to make more, and we ended up having two bad batches, and we realized we were in over our heads.
That’s one thing we’ve learned over and over – step back. Can we find a great product that’s made the way we want it made? If so, why shouldn’t we use it? Someday we’d like to be able to make everything here, but until we can do that in a way that makes sense, we have to find something that works.
So we found this amazing sauerkraut made by Hawthorne Valley Farm upstate. It was better than the sauerkraut we were making. It was being made by a small farm upstate. Why wouldn’t we use their sauerkraut instead of ruining two hundred pounds of cabbage on our own?
You know, during the first few months, any time we’d have lines stretching out the door or it was just jam-packed in here, we’d look at each other and be like, “Whoah. I can’t believe this. It’s actually working!” It’s funny in a way. You put all this work into making something people will love, and making it the way you want to make it, but it’s still a shock when people actually do love it! It’s just funny!
You can drop by Bark Hot Dogs at 474 Bergen St. (b/n 5th Ave and 6th Ave at Flatbush on the Park Slope/Prospect Heights border) to try one of their carefully-constructed dogs. Open ’til midnight Mon – Thurs and 2am Fri – Sat.