A girl walks into one of Josh Kaplan’s restaurants. Kaplan — the 42-year-old owner of Josh’s Hot Dogs in Northbrook and Josh’s On The Square in Deerfield — looks up, notices her and shouts, “Hello, Pickles!”
The girl smiles. She hadn’t ordered a thing, yet Kaplan’s friendly greeting fills her with joy.
“She loves pickles,” says Kaplan, recounting how he treats one of his regular customers as he sits across from me at a booth at Eggshell Café in Deerfield. “I started calling her ‘Pickles’ one day, and then the nickname stuck.
“There’s another customer who would never, ever order a Coke product because a neighbor of hers is a Pepsi rep and she wants to remain loyal to her neighbor. So when she comes in I call her ‘Pepsi.’ ”
The uber-exuberant Kaplan had already downed a vanilla protein shake at his home in Northbrook and completed four miles on a treadmill when I insist he order a breakfast. The 1992 Deerfield High School graduate and father of two boys (Nate, 8, and Marty, almost 6) complies, choosing coffee, an egg-white omelet with mushrooms and spinach and a side of mixed fruit.
With the start of the 2017 Major League Baseball season nearing the on-deck circle, I can’t think about the taste of a hot dog without also hearing the sound of a wood bat crushing a baseball. Kaplan’s hot dog stands sell more than hot dogs, but the national pastime’s most popular fare is why Kaplan is my breakfast teammate today.
The restaurateur’s mere presence whets my appetite for Vienna Beef and monstrous home runs off the bat of brawny Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber.
“What do I like on my hot dog?” says Kaplan, who graduated with a degree in communications from the University of Illinois and later earned his Ph.D. (Palatable hot.Dog?) from Vienna Beef’s Hot Dog University in Chicago. “I like mustard, onions, pickles and peppers.”
The ingredients he considers crucial to running a successful restaurant are quality of food, customer service and cleanliness. No need to ask him to put those in order of importance.
“They’re equal, all three of them — always have been, in my mind,” says Kaplan, whose wife, Kate, is a 1991 New Trier graduate. “I love what I do. One of the most rewarding parts of my day is engaging with the customers. My sons, they work at my restaurants, mostly wiping tables. I remember one day, when it was busy and I was talking with everybody, [Nate] said, ‘Daddy, you know so many people.’ I’ve made many friends through this job, and I’ve preached to my sons, ‘Be nice to everybody, because a friend is a million times more valuable than an enemy.
“I tell people, ‘I’m not in the food business; I’m in the business of making people happy.’ ”
Kaplan’s first job, post-college, was in radio — audio candy. Gigs at WNUA (95.5, smooth jazz) and at WJMK (104.3 FM, when it was an oldies station) preceded stints as a property manager, rental agent and broker in the real estate industry. Kaplan then learned all about the hot dog business when he hung out and ate regularly at Wolfy’s, located on Peterson Avenue in Chicago.
Wolfy’s owner Pete Romas and Kaplan opened a Wolfy’s in Northbrook. Wolfy’s in Northbrook became Josh’s Hot Dogs in Northbrook when Kaplan and Romas split amicably in 2009.
“I always knew — always had a feeling, you could say — I’d eventually get into the food business,” says Kaplan, whose father, Len, paid a young Josh $10 per day to join him on truck runs when the father was a Vienna Beef jobber. “I’d be in Nebraska, driving around with my brothers (Gregg, now 44, and Andrew, 36), see a place and say, ‘Now that would be a great spot for a hot dog stand.’ ”
It was during his days of father-son bonding on the road — from the age of 6 until he was 18 — when Josh realized quality and consistency meant survival in the food industry.
“Another reason I’m doing what I’m doing now is my mom [Eileen],” says Kaplan, who first welcomed hungry patrons to his Deerfield restaurant in 2016. “She ran a veterinarian clinic in Riverwoods, and she’d come home for lunch and prepare dinner for us. Then she’d cook dinner, maybe prepare for the next day’s meals after that and somehow find the time to make sure we had snacks.
“My mom … she was always cooking. When I was growing up, my mom was the best.”
Josh Kaplan — the father and the former high school soccer and baseball player — has coached his son, Nate, for three undefeated soccer seasons in Northbrook Park District action. Nate can play anywhere on a soccer pitch, the proud father says.
“Sports and music,” Kaplan says, “have always been my major interests outside of work. You want me to sing the Deerfield High School fight song for you right now? I will. I’m proud to wear the school’s red and gray. As for music, I’m a big Phish fan. I’ve seen the group perform 100-plus times. My wife and I are going to join a crew of 15-20 of our friends and attend a Pink Talking Fish [a band fusing the music of Pink Floyd, The Talking Heads and Phish] concert at Park West.”
Music is usually the theme of Kaplan’s philanthropic events at his restaurants. Good food lures supporters, too. School of Rock performers helped raise funds for Ronald McDonald House. Proceeds from a concert held on the Fourth of July last year offset costs of medical care and clothing for military veterans. Local PTOs also have received donations, and kid DJs spearheaded a Josh’s-based canned food drive in the winter.
“Our fundraisers aren’t just great because they help others in need,” Kaplan says. “You also get to listen to music and spend time with friends — the best of both worlds in one setting. What’s better than having a blast and doing something for a worthy cause at the same time?”
Josh’s Hot Dogs in Northbrook is located at 873 Sanders Road; Josh’s On The Square in Deerfield is located at 740 Waukegan Road.