Follow your dreams to Toby's Cup, the best hotdogs in NJ (the world?)

It's really not a surprise to me that I am an entrepreneur. While starting my own photography business was never in my early life plan, the desire to be my own boss and certainly to make my dreams a reality were clearly lurking somewhere in my bloodline (perhaps closer to the surface than I might have imagined) soaking in my environment as I grew into adulthood.

As a child you know (by observation) what your parents and grandparents do for a living and could tell a stranger if they asked. But a child rarely wonders how or why a job becomes a profession - what made you decide to do this? How did you get there? Was this your dream? I do wish I had asked these questions of those who are now long gone, but I didn't. I can look back, though, and piece some of stories together.

I can imagine my grandmother (mom's side), younger than I am now, cooking in her restaurant that served Bethlehem Steel workers for three squares a day (the restaurant was Geri's Luncheonette and was bulldozed over, many years ago). Later, in my first infusion of entrepreneurship, I heard her stories and learned her secrets at her knee as she continued to make amazing meals (fit to feed an army) the rest of her life.

I can imagine my great aunt and uncle (mom's side) who operated a bar / restaurant / hotel on the east side of Bethlehem, with the help of my grandparents, during the same time period (50s) as they catered to out-of-towners staying in the city while doing work at Bethlehem Steel. Hearing these stories served as a second dose of entrepreneurship, now coursing happily undetected in my bloodstream.

But most influential over my business decisions is what I did see - and can still see with my own eyes (because some things last a lot longer than others) - the business that was my grandfather's (dad's side) dream on a little corner of a very busy highway (Rt 22) serving the best hot dogs in NJ. It's called Toby's Cup. And is perhaps my truest example of how dreams come true, but there is a price to pay.

Have a side of history with that:
Toby's Cup (or "The Cup" as it's known to those intheknow) should be a historical landmark (in fact if anyone knows how to go about accomplishing this, please contact me!). It has been in the same spot, sporting the same bright green facade, with the same slightly scary clown on the side for 64 years. The menu hasn't changed much - still hot dogs on a warm bun served with everything (mustard onion pickle) and a milkshake. The updated grill menu now includes chicken cheese steaks, pork roll sandwiches and of course the original cheese steaks and hamburgers. It used to be a Coca Cola only business but later (due to popular demand) started carrying Pepsi and bottled water as well. But the favorites are still the extra thick milkshakes made with Breyer's Ice Cream (no wonder it's still my choice among ice cream, I was practically raised on it!). And if you haven't yet, try the cherry vanilla shake.

Toby's is the original mom and pop shop. It's a greasy spoon. It's a novel and amazing business. And my father and grandmother own and operate the business with family intercession now and again (my grandfather passed away 8 years ago, leaving the legacy to my father).

Working at Toby's was a rite of passage for me and my two brothers - each of us did our time (one still does) serving up steaks and burgers and scraping grills. And let me tell you, there is nothing more challenging and nothing to keep you more honest than working in food service with family at the helm in a very, very physically small building. Definitely another heavy dose of entrepreneurship for me, this one from actual experience.

What did I learn from all this? That there are a myriad of challenges in this country for small businesses. That as the options - like the fast food chains that crop up around The Cup - grow to serve a population determined to have variety, small businesses do suffer and must find a way to stand out and keep up. That even the best businesses can be constrained by location, lack of space, and minimal parking (Toby's happens to face all three in addition to being at the mercy of the weather, having only outdoor seating and minimal indoor standing room) so you have to rise to the challenge and get creative with what you have. But I also learned that giving back to the community is part of the equation for a good business. Toby's receives many awards, accolades and thanks for donations to high school events, fire department and police fund raisers, etc. It is a place that serves the community. I learned that lesson well and follow the example as best I can.

Looking back, I can see what I learned. I also see what I didn't. I never really understood the time, effort, ingenuity and sheer determination to never quit that went into owning and operating a business or appreciated the blood, sweat, tears and frustrations that came with it - especially when it comes to keeping a business going in the face of the future. Now, of course, I do. And as I reflect I also reiterate, dreams do come true at a price, but the price is worth it (at least to me) in the long run.

Want to know what sets me apart from other photographers? I believe it's my quality, customer service, personal attention, creativity and desire to never stop learning. I can't give you a photograph for the price of a portrait session at a chain store, but I can give you a simply amazing product that will stand out from any portrait session you've ever had before.

Want to know what sets Toby's apart (because there's really NOTHING else like it in the world)? Don't take my word for it (because, ok, I might be a little biased). Check out the facebook fan page that was NOT started by anyone related to the family - it was started by a local guy (Allen-Michael Yavor) who loved the place - the idea - enough to make a statement. And check out this independent rating as well at Holly's Eats online

And while, no, you can't get fries with that, you just never know what 2010 may bring. And you won't get a better hot dog anywhere.

So yeah, this is kind of a plug for Toby's. But it's also a plug for me. And for the small business. A plug for living the dream. If you know anyone who owns and operates a small business, or you do yourself, be sure to give your money back to a small business today. You - the fans (the True Fans) understand that you may pay a little more, but you're getting a product that goes a longer way. And word of mouth  - from your mouth to the ears of your friends - is the greatest way to advertise. And if I've learned anything of value, it's that honoring you - the true fans - is the heart of success.

So, no, it's not a surprise that I am an entrepreneur. The only surprise is that I didn't end up in food service.


Rusty Harden said…
This brought tears to my eyes. I have seen the lessons you brought to your business in action. I admire your family and their businesses and what they brought to us. Thanks for the story.
Sara Merrick said…
Pure passion. Nothing else compares. Great photos, great post.
Anonymous said…
Often we forget the little guy, the SMB, in our discussions of the comings and goings of the Internet marketing industry. Sure there are times like this when a report surfaces talking about their issues and concerns but, for the most part, we like to talk about big brands and how they do the Internet marketing thing well or not so well.
julie king said…
those hot dogs sound delicious! i could easily have ended up in the food bus as well since my grandparents ran a little country restaurant in economy, indiana called the kopper kettle. i grew up helping in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and baking pies. i can close my eyes and be there in the back kitchen area.

so glad you decided to go into photogrpahy. you inspire me!
Dave Crowell said…
This is an awesome testimonial. The back story, the insight into my own experience. We do become what we live. I am so hungry, I want to make a road trip and check out "The Cup" for myself. It's good to remember one's roots and to spring forth from them. Thank you for the reminder as to what is my own past and my own motivation.

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