New Jersey Designer Dawgs hot dog restaurant almost crushed by COVID

New Jersey’s Holly Smith was about to make her dream business a success when the COVID pandemic threatened to turn her into a nightmare.

It’s not exaggerated either.

“Everyone told me if you could make it to year three, that’s when your business would really take off,” Smith told Fox News Digital in a phone interview this week.

While the restaurant industry is notoriously difficult for startups, for Smith it seemed like the stars were aligning.

Despite the generally low chances of success for new restaurants and a divorce in 2019 that put her in deep debt, her neophyte New Jersey boutique was making a small profit.

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Smith opened Designer Dawgs, a hot dog shop, in Clinton, Hunterdon County, in 2017.

Since the age of 21, she dreamed of owning her own restaurant. She invested all her savings to make her small shop a reality.

Holly Smith, left, with her daughter Megan, at Smith’s Designer Dawgs restaurant. Smith opened her shop in 2017 and has managed to hang on throughout the pandemic. A blue sprinkles hot dog, served in honor of Autism Awareness Day last April, is shown (Holly Smith)

“The first two months of this winter before the pandemic were great,” Smith said. “I was so excited. I was finally fine, even in the winter,” she added.

It said its sales from January 2020 to February 2020 were triple those of its first two winters of operation.

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Before the pandemic hit, Smith partnered with a local program for teens with special needs. Some students from Voorhees High School’s Unified Club and Sports program have worked at Designer Dawgs through this program.

They interacted with clients while learning work and life skills. Smith’s daughter, Megan, was president of the club.

A few months later, however, pandemic-related mitigation measures closed schools and businesses. Restaurants have been moved to takeout only.

Designer Dawgs

Al fresco dining at Holly Smith’s Designer Dawgs restaurant in Clinton, New Jersey. “Sometimes,” Smith told Fox News Digital, “I can’t believe I survived all of this.” (Holly Smith)

Smith’s business has shrunk.

It also meant the end of the ability for Unified Students to work in his store.

“It was so sorry in Clinton that the ducks were literally sleeping on the street outside my shop,” Smith said. “There were no cars to disturb them.”

She periodically kicked them off the street just in case, she said.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I survived all of this. Most people would have closed their doors and locked themselves in,” she added.

Designer Dawgs

A specialty hot dog is served at Holly Smith’s restaurant in New Jersey. (Holly Smith)

She also said, “I had a growing business, but my income was reduced to almost nothing for March and April. The pandemic crushed my numbers and I suffered a loss in 2020.”

In March, staying in the restaurant business — at least for Holly Smith — was a breeze.

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Not only was indoor dining banned, but the rules and regulations around takeout were unclear, both to restaurateurs and to officials and authorities charged with enforcing them.

At the start of the pandemic, for example, Holly Smith was alone in her locked shop, watching Netflix. Whenever she needed to prepare or deliver food for the occasional order to her walk-in window, she put on a mask.

A policeman once knocked on the window of Holly Smith’s takeout, telling her she had to wear a mask at all times inside the restaurant, even when she was alone.

Once, a policeman knocked on her window, telling her she had to wear a mask at all times, even when she was alone.

“He was doing his best,” Smith said of the officer.

Smith, however, confirmed with the local health board that if she was alone in her store and not actively cooking food or dealing with customers, she did not need to wear a mask.

Another example of the challenges she faced: When Smith told her significant other, Scott Goldberg, that she needed to install a plexiglass barrier at her counter, the crafty carpenter got creative. “Give me a day to think about it,” he told her.

Designer Dawgs

Holly Smith’s significant other built it for Designer Dawgs at the start of the pandemic, when Smith had to install a plexiglass barrier at the counter. “Customers loved it,” she told Fox News Digital. (Holly Smith)

A few hours later, he began installing a windshield he made from parts from an old Jeep.

The decorative element comes with a mirror and an inspection sticker.

“Customers loved it,” Smith said.

Difficult realities

Although restrictions on dining in the Garden State have been lifted, Smith told Fox News Digital that she thinks people are still hesitant to dine indoors even now as omicron cases decline.

As a result, she brings in other employees to work only during certain weekends – and she has also had to reduce her store’s opening hours.

“Last winter, because people didn’t want to be inside, [business] wasn’t good,” she said. “And this winter it was even worse.”

Designer Dawgs

Another exterior view of Designer Dawgs in Clinton, New Jersey. Holly Smith’s restaurant was ranked No. 21 among more than 200 Garden State hot dog joints in an NJ publication survey. (Holly Smith)

She said that because of the omicron variant, “a lot of people are still scared” – even now, she said.

“It was about to be my best year. Even though I bounced back [since the start of COVID]I think it would have been so much more,” she said.

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Smith and other local restaurateurs found creative ways to come together during the worst of the pandemic. In April 2020, Smith ran a promotion where customers could purchase a “kit” as part of a contest to create the best new hot dog recipe.

The kits contained items from other struggling restaurants in the area.

“Customers told me it was the most fun they had during the shutdown, Smith said of the “Chopped”-inspired activity.

Hope for the future

Smith wasn’t about to let the pandemic kill a business she had worked very hard to build.

Recently, on a previous National Hot Dog Day in July, Designer Dawgs was ranked #21 among more than 200 hot dog joints in the state in a survey by New Jersey magazine.

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Although Smith says her credit card sales last December and January were the lowest since opening, she is determined to keep working to achieve her dream.

She owes the survival of her business, in large part, to her loyal customers, she said.

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“I really believe, once this is over, I’ll be busy again,” she said. “My clients love me and I love them.”

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