Willy Dog's new digs
“It became more than just a hot dog stand on campus,” said Jim Bontaine, owner of the McMaster Willy Dog stand and several other locations around Hamilton.
“To this day I still find it surreal to have become, well, an institution within an institution.”
This fall marks 12 years of the Willy Dog stand on campus, and with this milestone comes exciting news that Bontaine will be expanding his services into a fixed restaurant location in Westdale.
Every student and staff member at McMaster knows the iconic red and yellow cart located outside the Student Centre. The Willy Dog stand has always been open to provide delicious hot dogs and sausages to the McMaster community, whether it’s during a crazy and chaotic Welcome Week, after a brutally long night class, or simply during your lunch break when you need a mid-day pick me up.
The Willy Dog stand first opened in November of 2003 after a former McMaster hot dog vendor closed up shop.
“Right away we had a lot of business, but what I found out was [the vendors] that had been here before, everybody loved them… I knew right away that I had some big shoes to fill,” said Bontaine.
Bontaine has since filled those shoes, and has become a staple in the McMaster community. In the 12 years he’s been here, he has gone on to win the Best Hot Dog Vendor in North America in 2014, and came in second place in 2015. He has spent time taking part in charity events on campus, donating annually to bursary programs and Charity Ball fundraisers.
He initially got started after an old friend introduced him to the vendor business. “Willy Dog was started by a friend of mine who I grew up with. He had been involved with a few business ventures, and at one point he decided to start a hot dog cart. His name was Will, so he came up with Willy Dog,” said Bontaine.
"To this day I still find it surreal to have become, well, an institution within an institution."- Jim Bontaine, Owner, Willy Dog
“I was working elsewhere and helped him whenever I could as far as dealing with his business, setting up new franchises, going to franchise shows… He had been bugging me to get into it. I tried it a few times, I knew about the business… my boss at the time wouldn’t give me time off to try [vending], so I quit a sales job I had for five years and started this.”
Bontaine’s initial set-up involved a primary cart on Dundurn as well as working the bars late at night.
“When I started, business was great in the summer, but by the time October rolled around, I wasn’t earning enough to make a living.” In an effort to expand his business, Bontaine used his sales background to setup more shops and daytime locations throughout Hamilton. After doing this for 8 years, he opened his spot on campus.
Bontaine has always been involved in the food industry. As a teenager, he spent time working at his parents’ trailer park in Cayuga running the snack bar.
“Growing up with my parents owning a trailer park and running the snack bar, it was a sort of natural direction,” he said.
When Bontaine first setup shop on campus, it crossed his mind to open a storefront, but time constrictions already associated with running multiple stands made him put this on hold.
Twelve years later and Bontaine is now opening up that shop close to the intersection of King West and Paradise North in Westdale. The store will be called Great Tastes Only and will offer takeout and delivery items including fresh ground beef burgers, fresh cut fries, a variety of poutines, specialty sandwiches, salads and of course, willy dogs and sausages. The restaurant is predicted to open by the end of this coming July, and will also be setup to accept meal plans and student cards as a form of payment.
The new location will have a different moniker, but the name Willy Dog won’t be lost. The stand on campus will still be fully operating as well as a few other locations around the city. Bontaine’s friend who initially coined the name is no longer in touch with the new franchises, and Bontaine is ready to develop a style of his own.
“I’ve always loved the Pontiac GTO cars… since I was on the drag strip in Cayuga in my youth. I decided to try to see what I could come up with name-wise to use the GTO acronym, and that’s when I came up with ‘Great Tastes Only’.”
Bontaine is one of a few street vendors looking to setup a permanent home, with both Hamilton’s Gorilla Cheese and Southern Smoke looking at locations on Ottawa North. The food truck and stand industry can be a lucrative one, but with it comes a lot of red tape surrounding health and safety issues as well as challenges with cooking space and storage. Brick and mortar shops allow vendors to create a more diverse menu with more freedom.
Bontaine has run a catering business out of Hamilton for the last few years, and has a loyal following not just from there, but from his many stands as well. He is currently in the process of hiring a chef to help make his dreams a reality, and would also like to develop a food truck that he has already purchased.
It’s been a busy 20 years running the Willy Dog stands, and Bontaine hopes that the new restaurant as well as some new staff members will help lighten the load and change his style of work.
“I have Scott coming on board who is going to look after the Mac location. It needs more than I’m going to be able to give anymore because of the expansion, and I don’t want to lose that personal touch,” he said.
Scott Bennett will be overseeing the cart. He has always had a passion for street vending and a daughter who recently graduated from Mac has made him well acquainted with our campus community.
“Almost every occasion I’ve been working—Canada day, Victoria day, you name it, I’ve been working, and it’s taken me away from my family. Especially now that I have grandchildren it’s all about trying to oversee it now and spend more time with my family,” said Bontaine.
Playing more of a management role, Bontaine is ready to take on a different approach to vending. Westdale will be his new main location, but McMaster will always be part of his business.
“I owe the success on campus to the support I’ve had over the years. I enjoy the interaction with students and faculty, it’s something that I think is a great privilege.”