We always like to learn more about our winners. The man behind our 2014 Hot Dog Vendor of the Year, Jim Bontaine has a story to tell.
It’s funny how a disagreement with an employer can completely change your life. For some, it means joining the local police force, for others it means taking a step away from corporate life to be your own boss. It was this decision that led him to take ownership of the Willy Cart, now lovingly known as the Willy Dog.
Jim started in the food service business when he was young. He spent summers working at his family-owned a trailer park in Cayuga grilling hot dogs and burgers every Sunday. While his dad worked in Toronto during the week, he and his mother ran Conway Park. Jim did a bit of everything.
After his father’s passing, they gave up the park and Jim held sales and management jobs in a variety of places. All of that experience taught him how to run his own business… And I know the students of McMaster are happy his path brought him to Hamilton, Ontario.
He started with one cart outside of a local beer store on Dundurn Street twenty years ago. He quickly branched out seeking nighttime locations, eventually expanding to 4-6 bars weekly at night, while maintaining his day spots. He got to know the students in town and upon their requests; Jim explored a spot on campus. After a brief negotiation, his on-campus location was approved in November 2003.
Jim and his staff have rarely missed a day in the last 10 years. In his time on campus he’s gotten to know the McMaster students, worked to raise funds for their organizations, and become a part of the fabric of the community. In fact, the Art Gallery of Hamilton requested Willy Dog at the wedding reception on behalf of their clients, students that met while getting their ever-present, always delicious hot dogs.
Students at McMaster can study a variety of degrees, but Jim always reminds the students to “Study Dogology this term” on all of his promotional fliers. He was even approved by a university committee to have an authentic maroon Mac jacket made up with the Willy Dog logo on the arm, “Dogology 101” on the back indicating his inaugural year of 2003 on campus. This jacket is a source of pride for Jim and his place in the McMaster community.
Jim sees many of the same students week after week. To cater to McMaster’s international student and faculty clientele, Jim has added all sorts of toppings to his offerings. Willy Dog’s customer favorites are ketchup, onions, crushed BBQ chips and Sriracha sauce. Some recent additions are cilantro chutney and tamarind hot ‘n spicy date chutney. The variety of toppings on his all beef, halal chicken and veggie dogs keeps his menu exciting for his customers. When Jim isn’t on campus, he can be found with an extended menu catering private events or with his Willy Dog Cart in many of Hamilton’s special events, such as the Super Crawl in September.
Jim has been able to build a great business, one in which he takes great pride. “This business isn’t for everyone,” he says. “Don’t expect overnight to suddenly make money.” The responsibilities of owning your own business are challenging, let alone the long hours of standing and the weather. After speaking with Jim, it sounds like none of that bothers him. His students and his involvement in Hamilton constantly energize him.
What’s next for Jim and Willy Dog? He’s so excited about the food truck industry and considering expanding onto four wheels. He’s also got his sights set on a takeout location in the west end of Hamilton. It looks like the students of McMaster and the people of Hamilton have let this entrepreneur grow and thrive. We’re always happy to support those visionaries that build their empire, especially when it’s one delicious hot dog at a time.