Gary and Cindy Wood have been married for 33 years, and they’ve been in business together for nearly just as long. Their niche: hot dog cuisine with as many toppings imaginable.
Or, as Gary Wood calls it, “affordable indulgences.”
Cindy Wood proudly notes that they initially differentiated themselves among Hartford’s vendor crowd in 1977 by introducing cheese on chili dogs.
Since then, cheese and hot dogs have done them well. Today, their best-selling hot dog combos are: the Underdog, with bacon and cheese; and the Deputy Dog, with pulled pork and cheddar cheese.
Outside the Old State House, where Cindy tends to a lunchtime crowd from a cart with steamed hot dogs, customers and passersby alike stop to chat with her about the most recent Dolphin’s game, or some other matter that might be in the news.
She knows many of the lunch crowd by name, and they call her out by name, as well. The same friendly camaraderie happens at their restaurant Woody’s, located inside the former American Airlines office building, where the upper-level floors have been converted from offices into apartments.
“We really aim to be a neighborhood place,” she said.
In many ways, that sincere, friendly demeanor has helped the Woods stay in business for more than three decades. When the recessions hit or downtown office buildings close down, they hunker down and the loyalty of long-time customers comes in.
“Our customers are so good to us and they keep patronizing us,” Cindy said. “That’s why we try to keep things affordable.”
Together, the Woods have experienced the good times and some not-so-good. They’ve survived a personal and economic challenges that would test most business owners. “The main issue in life and in business; nothing is ever a sure thing,” she said.
When American Airlines closed its downtown offices in 2002, their breakfast and lunch business dropped in half, Cindy said.
She and her husband buckled down; they stopped offering breakfast, and cut their staff from four employees to one.
Then the unexpected happened. Cindy was diagnosed with cancer. With only one employee, they needed her to help run the business. After serving the lunchtime crowd, Cindy would drive to Hartford Hospital for chemotherapy, and later, for radiation treatments. She also underwent two surgeries.
Small business owners have to be prepared for the unexpected, Cindy warns. And they also have to be prepared to do whatever is required to keep their business going, she warned.
“Nothing is beneath me and I’ll do anything to keep my business going. I’ll clean toilets. [Small business owners] have to be willing to do everything and anything.”
Despite the challenges, Woody’s has grown over the past four years, after it doubled its restaurant space and opened a sports bar that features a flat screen television. It’s not uncommon for the bar to be filled to capacity during Miami Dolphins’ games and before University of Connecticut basketball games.
After the UConn crowd discovered Woody’s, she said, they’ve been packed before games ever since. “Once they know us, they come back,” she said.
They’ve also added revenue by catering and also renting out the sports bar — which serves beer and wine — for private parties.
“You have to know what you are looking to accomplish, set goals, and then more goals, and then re-access what you can do to achieve those goals,” Cindy Wood advised. “My husband and I kept doing things to make our business better. For us, we love hot dogs, but we also love the entrepreneurial spirit of small business.”