The Hot Dog Vendor With the Unexpected Edge

Every day for over twenty years, he has occupied the same spot on the same street. If it were not for the unexpected edge he created for himself, he would have blended in with the hundreds of other street vendors dotting the city. His stainless steel cart was as unassuming and typical as the one a block away and another two blocks away near the park. If ever there was a generic business with little differentiation between competitors, a hot dog cart would be it. They sell the same hot dogs, condiments, and drinks. Even the racks of chips are identical. However, this particular hot dog vendor is different.

Sit and watch him for an hour, and you’ll notice he seems to intuitively know what the customer wants before the person even gets to his cart. Therefore, his service is lightning-quick.

What you will also see is that he works a lot of big orders. Plenty of customers walk away with a box full of hot dogs, chips, and drinks. There is something definitely different about this hot dog vendor.

Here’s the difference: this hot dog entrepreneur knows he has to build a personal relationship with his customers. As a result, they are as committed to him as he is to them. His most powerful marketing tool? His memory. He commits each customer’s face to memory along with that person’s name and specific hot dog preferences.

The man with the birthmark on his left cheek, Stan, is a spicy mustard lover. Gretchen, the lady with the accent and fiery red hair, is no onions but extra chili. These preferences, along with hundreds of his customers’ names and faces, are locked away in the vendor’s personal database and are available to him with instantaneous recall. He identifies a regular customer from a hundred yards away, starts preparing his order, and has it ready and waiting the instant the customer reaches his cart. That’s why there are usually no lines; he is prepared.

His unexpected edge is his willingness to embrace risk to be more successful. And, besides the normal risks that every entrepreneur embraces to be successful, he goes further. By relying on his memory to be personal with his customers, he exposes himself to the possibility of getting something wrong. Mistaken identity means a wrong order, personal embarrassment, and a perfectly good hot dog thrown in the trash. This is a risk the vendor gladly embraces because the return on this investment is customers who appreciate the personal touch and the extra effort he takes to remember them. Expectations are exceeded and the customers have a unique experience.

In recent years, the hot dog vendor has also embraced the risk of technology. He began to accept credit and debit cards via his mobile phone to make purchasing his hot dogs easier for his customers. And by doing so, he also had to embrace the risk of accepting the fees that come with processing credit cards. Because our mobile phones have become part of our personal utility belt of tools, he started to take orders from loyal customers via text messaging. He uses this database of customers’ mobile numbers to send reminders about stopping by his cart for the best hot dogs in the city.

Is there any business as low-tech as selling hot dogs? Yet our vendor successfully embraces the risk of getting personal with his customers and uses technology to enhance the customer experience and solidify these relationships. Getting personal and integrating new technology has a singular purpose: It keeps the focus on the customer experience. When these two objectives are aligned, then success is the result. Just ask the man behind the stainless steel cart.

Here’s the takeaway: As an entrepreneur, you must have a long-term view of your business. All innovation, inventions, new ideas, process development, and product development is done by people for people. The basis for all business is to improve people’s lives by producing products or providing services that offer a benefit. No matter how big or how small, no matter whether you agree with the method or the means, the intent of all business transactions is to improve the human experience.

© 2014 Tom Panaggio, author of The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Edge