The Dog House Café reimagines an American favorite.
By April Bartel and photos by Turner Photography Studio
You can find a burger place on just about any corner, but The Dog House Café at the intersection of S. Potomac and Antietam Streets in Hagerstown is giving another backyard classic its due with an inventive array of tasty twists and surprises. If the place feels somewhat familiar, it is because second generation Jovann “Jay” Carter is carrying on the tradition started by his parents. John and Sheila Carter opened the first Dog House on Washington Street from 2005-2009 while both were working other full-time jobs.
John, a self-proclaimed hot dog connoisseur, says, “One night I had a dream. I took my income tax refund and started the business. We flourished from there.”
Jay gives them credit. “They are the originators,” he beams. “I wanted to keep my father’s legacy going. I wanted to bring something downtown that they didn’t have, which is low-priced but great quality food in a friendly atmosphere.”
The trio moved to Hagerstown from Ohio in 2001 when Jay was about 11, so the original restaurant was a big part of his formative teen years. He recalls working in the back, making hot dogs and thinking about new combinations, dreaming of eventually opening his own sports bar. He says that watching his parents helped him appreciation the “blood, sweat, and tears” it takes to run a successful business. “My dad worked two jobs. He was a yardmaster for the railroad. He worked full-time, plus the restaurant.”
“Mama Sheila” as she is known on The Dog House’s social media, worked full-time, too. She says, “When we started the first restaurant, I didn’t want anything to do with it. But every day when I got off work at 5 o’clock, I would come down and watch.” A natural in the kitchen, she couldn’t resist helping John perfect his recipes, especially the sauces. So, the place quickly became a family affair, a true “Mom & Pop.”
During the gap, Jay worked another job, but was disenchanted with the abrasive environment. In 2019, he asked Sheila to work with him on a New York-style hot dog cart that they could set up downtown during the week and take to events on the weekend. Sales were strong and the duo upgraded their cart, but frigid winter temps motivated them to think even bigger. It was clear they needed something more. So motivated, the Dog House Café howled back to life in November 2020.
Sheila still helps Jay. She offers praise mixed with good-natured teasing, “When Jovann started it over again, he took it much farther. And he works me harder!”
A handful of dishes endure from the original restaurant, including their “special sauce,” a.k.a. chili sauce. It is Sheila’s creation, based on the traditional Coney dog. The classic is typically served with bean-less meat sauce, yellow mustard, and diced onions. Sheila’s version is highly regarded, made of finely chopped meat and savory spices.
Jay says, “I had one customer come in and buy six bowls of it to take home. It’s awesome when that happens.”
The Dog House also serves a tomatoey chili with beans by the bowlful and as a topper on fries, but fans regularly ask for big containers of special sauce. With such a hearty response, Jay is working to get their proprietary recipe commercially jarred and sold at local grocery stores. He continues, “Once that’s done, we can talk about getting it into the new baseball stadium. That’s a big dream of mine.”
Other favorites include John’s original Hager Dog, decked with special sauce, coleslaw and a drizzle of sweet barbecue sauce. The crispy seasoned fries also make the list of returning favorites. And John gets credit for their catch phrase, “If you’re in the doghouse, you might as well enjoy it.” It’s emblazoned on their T-shirts.
Newer menu additions include a playful take on Maryland’s favorite crustacean. Jay’s Maryland Dog is a “tube steak” spread with creamy crab dip, nacho cheese, and a generous dusting of Old Bay seasoning. He says he tested imitation crab in the recipe, but it didn’t fit his standard. “We are in Maryland and people here love crab.” So, only real crab would do. Unsurprisingly, it is a top seller.
“Everything on the menu sells,” insists Jay, thanks to a combination of the humble hot dog’s nostalgic appeal paired with lovingly crafted accoutrements in creative combinations. “Everything is homemade: both of the chilis, the sauerkraut, the sloppy Joe, the sauces, and the coleslaw. That’s what people come for.”
For her part, Sheila says she cooks from the heart, like her mother before her. “My mom trained me well. She made so many things, homemade cobblers and cakes. I very seldom saw my mom open up cans. It was always from scratch.”
The footlongs and quarter pound beef dogs are made locally by Hoffman’s Quality Meats, another Hagerstown staple since 1923. The regular dogs are Kunzler’s. “We tried a lot of hot dogs to find the right one,” explains Jay, noting how nicely they plump and blend with other flavors.
During our visit to The Dog House, we couldn’t resist trying the house special Coney, if only for a bite of their popular sauce. It delivered on a unique, herby flavor that eschews heavy cumin and tomato. We also tried the Rueben Dog, dressed with peppery pastrami, pungent Swiss cheese, Sheila’s sauerkraut, and a tangy ribbon of Thousand Island dressing. The Southern Dog is Jay’s take on John’s original, swapping tender house-made pulled pork in place of the chili, with creamy coleslaw and sweet barbecue sauce that reminded us of something tropical. (Jay wouldn’t part with the secret.) We added an order of cheesy fries and a jumbo pretzel with cheese and crab dip that were both a hit.
The ‘Dogless” menu includes paninis, burgers, chicken tenders, sausages, and even a veggie burger, plus other home-style favorites. There’s sloppy joes and grilled cheese, fried baloney and an “Italian bomb.” The fried PB&J is one of their twists, as is the “dog food.” That is beans and franks, for the uninitiated.
“We put it in a (human only) dog bowl for serving. People love it. It’s playful and gives it character,” grins Jay. “That was probably my favorite meal that my dad made.”
The Dog House Café also has a sweet spot. They serve ice cream from Windy Knoll, a farm market and creamery in Chambersburg. Sheila occasionally makes a special dessert, too, like her pineapple and peach upside-down cakes.
“We also have beer,” adds Jay. “Because what’s a hotdog without a beer?”
Ultimately, Jay is planning three more locations. He’d like to co-locate with a distillery then set up other places near a college or destination beach. Just as he thanks his parents for their inspiration and continued support, he’s keeping an eye on his own legacy. “I am doing this for my kids. I want my kids to be set.”
Definitely family-friendly, most menu items range from $3-$8, so prices are accessible. There’s even a wall of customer’s doggie pictures, so real fur-babies aren’t left out. When Jay first asked for pic-tures, his in-box was flooded. Naturally, the Carters collect donations for the local Humane Society, too.
“Everybody comes in here, families, friends,” says Jay. “We have a really special thing going on here and we appreciate people coming and welcom-ing us (back) to Hagerstown.”