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Top dogs: Third-generation owner of Callahan's hopes to expand as he rides wave of critical acclaim and financial success

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Daniel DeMiglio, owner and operator of Callahan's in Norwood.
Daniel DeMiglio, owner and operator of Callahan's in Norwood. - ()

For Daniel DeMiglio, business is booming — and not simply because July is National Hot Dog Month.

“The best thing I ever did was restart Callahan’s,” he said.

Now, the third-generation owner and operator of the New Jersey-based restaurant brand — known for its “ripper”-style fried hot dogs — DeMiglio, 34, said he hadn’t always known he’d find success with the business his grandfather started 67 years ago.

It just took him a while to get there.

DeMiglio began his career in communications and music direction for the National Basketball Association.

“I was so blessed to have traveled the world,” he said. “That experience showed me how responsive people are to the American dream and image.”

But, when he lost his job during the 2011 NBA lockout, DeMiglio would capitalize on the Americana aspect of Callahan’s to eventually revive and revitalize his family’s iconic business.

“Travel alone gave me all the education I’d need to bring fast food into fun food,” he said.

Among the menu items at Callahan’s: specialty hot dogs.
Among the menu items at Callahan’s: specialty hot dogs. - ()
Social media

Though Callahan’s Norwood restaurant and food trucks have nearly 27,000 likes on Facebook, Daniel DeMiglio, owner and operator, said he prefers promoting the business to its more than 9,000 followers on Instagram.

“Instagram means automatic sales,” he said. “We will post something and, within a few hours, kids will come through the doors saying they saw it on Instagram and want to order it.

“It is so incredible what social media does for our business, and so, we want to continue noticing — and following — the trends.”

In June, INSIDER Food enabled Callahan’s to “go global” when it posted a short viral video featuring the brand’s Truffle Gouda Mac n’ Cheese Stuffed Burger.

“Exposure has increased tenfold,” DeMiglio said. “So many people from around the world are now asking for T-shirts and for us to ship hot dogs to them.

“I have had to use Google translate on emails, because I don’t know how to respond to people in Japanese. When people write to you in different languages telling you how much they love your brand, that is an incredibly humbling experience.”

DeMiglio admits that, in this way, Callahan’s has become a very different business from the one his grandfather started in 1950.

“It’s so crazy to me, that, people from the other side of the world would want merchandise and product from a small entrepreneurial family business,” he said. “They just want the icon.”

•••

Leonard “Artie” Castrianni started Callahan’s in 1950, when he purchased and refurbished a gas station snack shack in Fort Lee.

DeMiglio, from the age of 7, often could be found working there, cutting and peeling potatoes and onions.

“My family showed me the ropes,” he said. “And when my dad, Ron, and my uncle, Rick, ran the business for 30 years, they showed me what it meant to run an entrepreneurial small business.”

The original Callahan’s closed in 2006, just as DeMiglio, having recently graduated from the University of Scranton, accepted a communications position with the NBA.

“Dining trends and guest priorities had simply changed,” DeMiglio said.

After working his way up to become the music director for the league, DeMiglio lost his full-time job in 2011 when the NBA announced what would be a more than 160-day lockout.

“I thought, what am I going to do?” he said.

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, DeMiglio decided to open The Bouwerie, a fine dining restaurant in Old Tappan, later that year.

“That threw me to the wolves and taught me so many things that I would later use to enhance business at Callahan’s,” he said.

Nostalgic restaurant patrons, DeMiglio said, more often than not asked him if he would ever consider reopening his family’s business. 

In 2014, after learning that the usage rights for the Callahan’s business name were set to expire, DeMiglio finally took the bait.

“I threw the idea of reopening Callahan’s around with the executive chef of The Bouwerie, Chef Daniel Fabian, and he said, ‘I don’t know, Dan,’ ” DeMiglio said.

“It was hard to convince him of my vision.”

Nonetheless, DeMiglio reopened Callahan’s — in the form of a food truck — later that year.

“I wanted to bring back the name, but also be cost-effective and cutting-edge,” DeMiglio said.

Fabian ultimately would join him.

“We started creating recipes from scratch that my grandfather would have,” DeMiglio said. “And, at our first event, we sold 2,400 hot dogs within five hours.” 

Within six months, DeMiglio was able to put a deposit down for a small storefront in Norwood in 2015, and grand opening crowds numbered more than 3,000.

“Food truck costs are significantly less, but with a restaurant, you have the ability to profit and grow your business without having to suffer downtime due to weather and seasons,” DeMiglio said.

•••

The restaurant has a van used for catering services.
The restaurant has a van used for catering services. - ()

While the location may have changed, DeMiglio took great care in making sure that the restaurant look and feel did not by incorporating a number of design elements from the original Fort Lee store.

“We’ve got stained glass lighting, vintage tin signs, a gallery of original store photos — oh, and a customized tail end of a ’57 Chevy that acts as a bottle opener for our vintage glass bottle sodas,” DeMiglio said.

Callahan’s is the exclusive carrier in the state for specialty glass bottles of Diet Pepsi.

“I’m one of the youngest to sign a five-year contract with Pepsi, working with the company every month to get things that nobody else has, like glass bottles in the store and on the food truck,” DeMiglio said.

Most importantly, Callahan’s continues to serve its famous “ripper”-style nine- or 12-inch hot dogs, specially made by Sabrett.

Though that’s certainly not all.

Callahan’s also serves:

Macaroni & cheese in flavors from Cool Ranch Dorito to truffle gouda bacon;

Sandwiches, from sausage and peppers to grilled or Cajun chicken;

Loaded fries, from disco to buffalo bacon blue;

Chicken wings, from ghost pepper cheese to Austin BBQ;

Desserts, such as its PB&J CallaSWEETbites (molded chocolate peanut butter cups, batter-dipped and fried, topped with peanut butter and jelly glaze);

CinnaCrunch Frosted Fries (sweet potato fries tossed in cinnamon and brown sugar and topped with melted vanilla icing);

And even its own “competitor” — the burger — made fresh with a proprietary blend of specialty beef sourced from Wonder Meats and tater tot buns. 

Callahan’s “Truffle Gouda Mac n’ Cheese Stuffed Burger,” in fact, was ranked No. 11 in the nation by USAToday.

“People especially love the aspect of late-night eats,” DeMiglio said.

Precisely why DeMiglio added an additional food truck — and a “mini-beast” van adorned with a giant fabricated hot dog — to Callahan’s roster for catering services.

“We now travel for private events, such as late-night weddings for high-end clientele that I can’t even name,” DeMiglio said. “Suddenly, I’m doing parties for up to 700 people.

“Just a few months ago, we served the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey inside an airport hangar at JFK Airport.

“We can handle the high volume.”

While a Callahan’s truck lives year-round at the Bergen County Zoological Park in Van Saun Park in Paramus, the other travels to events and festivals while the “mini-beast” serves smaller events rife with marketing opportunities.

“One day, I would love to have another location, a hub where the food trucks could go — maybe a big enough location to sustain the growth of both the store and the trucks,” DeMiglio said.

•••

Among the menu items at Callahan’s: a Truffle Gouda Mac N’ Cheese Stuffed Burger.
Among the menu items at Callahan’s: a Truffle Gouda Mac N’ Cheese Stuffed Burger. - ()

In the four years that Callahan’s has been back in the game, both the restaurant and the food trucks have earned multiple accolades.

For three years in a row, 201 Magazine has deemed it the Best Food Truck in Bergen County. Last year, Saveur Magazine named Callahan’s the Best Hot Dog in New Jersey. And finally, the brand earned Best Service, Best Food and Best Food Truck Overall between this year and the last at the popular Just Jersey Food Truck Mash Up event.

With eight full-time and six part-time employees — plus continuous 45 percent year-over-year growth — DeMiglio said the time has come to add a fourth operation.

“I would love to see a truck in every state,” he said. “So many places would love this brand because it’s so Americana.”

That would truly make his grandfather proud, DeMiglio said.

“I promised him that, one day, I would take Callahan’s to another level, and I believe I have,” he said.

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