During the course of his relatively brief 27-year run on this planet, Brian Benatovich has learned more about the business world than your average entrepreneur.
Quite likely even more than your above-average ones.
He's created organizations, learned the art of gaining and keeping customers, served on guiding boards, built community ties; all hallmarks of a successful and more than slightly ambitious businessman.
He's also learned when it's time for a timeout, and a few weeks ago, he put his fledgling restaurant and staff on a sorely needed one.
Benatovich — the namesake, brains and brawn behind Brian's Dog House Grill in Huntersville — says after one year in business, it was time for some critical retooling.
"We've listened to our customers," Benatovich says. "In the first year, we made mistakes, probably thousands of them ... but I want to make it right when we do."
The Buffalo, N.Y., native opened Brian's Dog House Grill in the Rosedale Shopping Center with the goal of bringing his hometown food to a growing population of homesick Buffalo transplants in the Carolinas — homesick for the tastes of their past, perhaps, but not necessarily for the upstate New York meteorological and economic climates they left behind.
As it has been for years, Benatovich says Buffalo continues to empty out as old industries such as the steel mills that once buttressed its economy move overseas, and that he is just one of several generations who have recognized that the chance for a better future lies elsewhere.
"I didn't want to be stuck in Buffalo," he says of his move to Huntersville. "When you put an anchor down in Buffalo, you get stuck. So I wanted to make myself an opportunity to come down here."
When he opened the restaurant's doors mid-December 2010, Benatovich admits one of those early mistakes he refers to was that his menu was a bit ambitious. While the stars were (and remain) the Sahlen's hot dogs and sausages shipped directly from Buffalo and grilled over red-hot hickory charcoal, he also had an extensive mix of steak or chicken sandwiches and other Buffalo-style faves in addition to burgers, wings, fries and milkshakes.
There was a lot going on with the menu, and Benatovich says that was one of the first changes he made during his early January hiatus.
"When we opened, our menu was really geared to a Buffalo clientele," Benatovich says. "We had fried bologna, we had steak subs, a bunch of different things. But what we found out was, people were really coming here for the hot dogs. So we decided let's really focus on the hot dogs, get rid of the fluff for now and focus on what we're really good at. And maybe in time, we can always reintroduce some of the items we've gotten rid of."
Something else his customers were telling him, he says, is that a good portion of his window seating was almost impossible to enjoy when the afternoon sun blazed away on the south-facing side of the restaurant.
So along with the menu retooling and top-to-bottom cleaning of the restaurant right after the holidays, up went the window tinting.
Benatovich says the two-week break to effectively reset — as well as give his hard-working staff some time to recharge — was part of the learning curve he's riding as a business owner.
"I quickly learned that opening a business was the easy part," he says. "Turning it and growing it and making it a sustainable business is the hard part. That's the real challenge."
Lucky for him, a challenge is not really anything he's ever avoided. His entrepreneurial resume, for a 27-year-old, is substantial.
It started with shoveling snow for neighbors and hawking lemonade from a street-side stand as a child, and by the time he was 14, he had started his own landscaping business. While volunteering on a public park improvement project as a young teen, Benatovich says the project's landscape architect recognized his work ethic and ability to organize. Not long after, Benatovich and a core group of about six friends he employed began subcontracting for that architect's residential clients to build, renovate or maintain their landscapes once the architect's work was done.
That business was no fluke. Benatovich kept it rolling until very recently, nearly 12 years.
He says he also stayed busy while at Syracuse University (he graduated in 2007), above and beyond his business school studies. As a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, he established a pick-up and delivery wash-and-fold laundry service while also serving as the frat's social director.
Niscah Koessler, Benatovich's mom who was in town for a few days recently, says that energy and drive is likely in his wiring, much like it is for her other children.
"One thing I have to say about my kids is that they're not afraid to work, side by side with whoever it is, at whatever job they do," she says. "They will learn it from the ground up."
That work ethic will come in handy, as Benatovich predicts some heavy lifting in the work he must do during year two of Brian's Dog House Grill.
"I came in with a model that worked for Buffalo, but quickly found out that this is not Buffalo and the model that we had needed to be changed and adapted," he says.
"That's where some of the mistakes came in. It's between what we know how to do and what we don't know how to do that we're going to grow, because it's in that space that we figure out how to do what we don't know how to do."
That may sound a bit like business grad double-speak, but to Benatovich, it's a simple equation that he thinks he can solve with part business school smarts and part common sense.
"Yeah, I went to business school and honestly, yeah, I learned stuff and some stuff sticks," he says. "But doing it in the real world is the most important. ... It's interesting and it's a challenge, but it's fun."
Step and repeat
Some would say he has an interesting view of just what fun is. Benatovich literally lives, eats and breathes Brian's Dog House Grill. He says a typical work week is about 80-90 hours, and when he's not at the grill or behind the register, he can likely still smell the charcoal grill and fresh-cut French fries at his apartment just a few blocks away that he shares with his dog, Caine.
Since reopening after his early-January hiatus, Benatovich says virtually all of his loyal customers have returned, and then some. As far as feedback on the menu changes, he says a few folks have mentioned they miss a sandwich selection here and there, but it's been overall quite favorable.
"People for the most part haven't noticed much," he says. "Eight out of 10 are clearly coming here for the hot dogs."
While he makes light of what he learned in business school versus the real-world application of those concepts, it's clear the Syracuse alum took something away from his time there.
He speaks at length about the need for securing replicable systems and procedures as the key to his business' future sustainability, growth and inevitable expansion.
"Right now, we're building those processes and procedures," says Benatovich.
"I can look back and say I should have had those when I first opened, but that's water under the bridge. In six months, our goal, between my staff and I, is we're creating those things to be followed, step by step, cover to cover, everything we do."
Benatovich says that includes every facet of the restaurant, from how to greet customers to how he schedules staff to how the hot dogs are grilled and the French fries are cut. He calls it his "test kitchen," adding it will be the framework for creating a turnkey business that one day he hopes will attract investors.
But for now, he says he and his staff will be rolling up their sleeves to build that model, day in and day out, getting it down on paper and simplifying it so those processes and procedures can be done consistently the same way, time after time.
"Then the next six months, we're going to test it, try it, change it as we need to," says Benatovich. "I'm sure edition one is gonna look a lot different than edition 10. And so in the next year, we'll have one that we feel pretty comfortable can be duplicated over and over again."
While he and his staff build on that consistency, he's not afraid to innovate. Benatovich says he's developed a partnership with nearby Jet's Pizza in which each restaurant promotes the other.
With their delivered pizzas, Jet's includes an insert from Brian's Dog House Grill that's good for a free hot dog, while Benatovich does likewise and refers his customers to Jet's for a free slice of pizza.
"I know people aren't going to eat hot dogs every day, and I love pizza," he says. "It's great to cross-promote. (Jet's) has customers that live in the same area that are eating pizza and like hot dogs. So let's add value for them and let them come in and try us."
One aspect of Benatovich's approach to business that won't change, however, is his emphasis on community. Since December 2010, Brian's Dog House Grill has been a presence at several community events — more than 30 in just one year. That included the Huntersville Christmas celebration of 2010, held before he even opened his doors to customers.
In addition to sponsoring the pony rides that night, Benatovich says he donated 100 percent of the proceeds from his hot dog sales — about $1,600 — entirely to CaliCo's Haven, a Huntersville-based nonprofit providing equine-assisted psychotherapy.
Benatovich says only time will tell whether his restaurant's timeout was the right thing to do. He says the trend has been that there is no trend — some weeks business is great and some not so much.
Forcasting which week will be which remains elusive, he says.
"The great thing is, that if I ever figure it out, I'll write a book and maybe get out of the food business," he says.
"But right now, this is what I want to do."
Brian's Dog House Grill serves up hickory charcoal grilled hot dogs, sausages and other Buffalo-style, homemade delicacies seven days a week, with nightly specials that include Friday fish fries and slow-cooked ribs on Saturday.
Find them at 9931 Rose Common Drive in Huntersville. For delivery within a five-mile radius, call them at 704-948-4232.