Hot dog stand stands up to trouble

Imperiled at 2 sites, Shorty's looks for more

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With its restaurants in downtown Washington and Washington Mall imperiled by reconstruction projects, the owners of venerable Shorty's Lunch may open a string of additional stores to strengthen the business.

Steve Alexas said his family was thinking about opening a new hot dog shop in South Strabane and establishing restaurants in Canonsburg and Franklin, near Waynesburg. If given the opportunity, he said, he'd also open a restaurant close to the Cabela's superstore, near Wheeling, W.Va.

It would be the family's first effort to turn a local landmark, established in the 1930s, into a chain. Alexas said threats to Shorty's current locations -- a downtown revitalization project in Washington and planned conversion of Washington Mall in South Strabane into a strip shopping center -- shook his family's sense of complacency and showed the need for growth.

"We probably should have expanded a long time ago," he said.

Expansion won't happen as quickly as Alexas can smother fries with gravy or slap mustard, chili and onion on an Albert's frank. But the idea already is making mouths water.

"That would be awesome," T. Reed Kiger, chairman of the Franklin supervisors, said of Alexas' plans. Alexas said he was interested in a district of retail stores, hotels and restaurants stretching from Interstate 79 to the Waynesburg borough line.

Canonsburg, planning a downtown revitalization and worried about development of the Southpointe II mega-park two miles away, would like to attract specialty tenants such as Shorty's. The Shorty's name commands a customer loyalty many businesses only dream of developing.

"We would love to have them," Canonsburg Manager Terry Hazlett said. He said the Alexas family told him they'd like a place with a drive-up window.

Alexas said he wouldn't make major changes to the menu, and Tim Murphy, associate professor of entrepreneurship at Washington and Jefferson College and director of the school's Entrepreneurial Studies Program, said sticking with core offerings would help expansion succeed. At some point, Murphy said, Shorty's could make small menu changes at each location.

Alexas, who operates the business with his father, George, and brother, John, said his family would continue fighting to save Shorty's original restaurant at 34 W. Chestnut St., Washington.

Industrialist Jack Piatt Sr. has proposed a $100 million revitalization project that would bring an office building, two parking garages, a hotel and other developments downtown. The project would remake three-quarters of the square block encompassing Shorty's, leaving the restaurant's fate uncertain.

Under Piatt's plan, Alexas said, the building housing Shorty's would be torn down for an alley and parking garage. In four weeks, Alexas said, 13,000 people have signed petitions to save the restaurant.

Marianne Kelly, Washington's Main Street manager, said Piatt's plan could be altered as circumstances require. She said the city regarded Shorty's as an "icon business" and wanted it to remain downtown, in one location or another, under terms acceptable to Piatt and the Alexas family.

Because of planned reconstruction of Washington Mall, which Alexas said would have closed the Shorty's location there for as long as two years, his family previously announced plans to relocate that restaurant to the Wolfdale section of Canton.

Shorty's has taken two storefronts of a small shopping center near Route 844 and Hewitt Avenue. He said that shop, with Shorty's first drive-up window and twice the space of the mall store, will open around March.

Alexas said Shorty's, a mall tenant for more than 30 years, had expected to leave the mall around the end of the year, but recently learned it can stay six more months because of a delay in the owners' plan to convert the property into a strip shopping center. He said he'd accepted the invitation.

If the mall owners scrap or scale back the overhaul, Alexas said, Shorty's might remain there permanently. If Shorty's must leave in six months, he said, he'd like to find another location in South Strabane.

He'd also keep the Canton location and add restaurants in Canonsburg and the Waynesburg area, which he called the areas he likes best for expansion. Once the Canton shop is operating, he said, he'll pursue the other locations.

Alexas said he'd be open-minded about other possibilities, too, such as a restaurant near Washington Crown Center in North Franklin. He said a shop near Cabela's was little more than a dream at this point.

"I'd like to put one in front of every Home Depot store, too," he said.

Murphy, the W&J professor, said Shorty's expansion plan was "almost a case study for a franchising class." While menu is one factor that would determine the success of expansion, he said, the reason people embrace the Shorty's brand also would come into play.

If people eat at Shorty's because they like the location more than other factors, expansion would be difficult. If they like the food and service more than the location, the business can be replicated elsewhere, Murphy said.

Shorty's has relied on all of the factors Murphy mentioned.

People like the tasty, inexpensive food and superfast service. They're also attached to the downtown shop because of the wooden booths, counter and window grill, and some claim hot dogs at the mall, while good, don't match those downtown.

Murphy said it was possible to defeat an expansion by opening too many stores in a given area. On the other hand, he said, Starbuck's has clustered its coffee shops, believing people who smell the aroma while passing by one location will stop at another nearby.

Kelly, Washington's Main Street manager, said Shorty's added value to the community, contributed to the town's image and attracted visitors. She said she wouldn't deny those benefits to another town.

"As long as they maintain a presence here, I would love to see Shorty's within all reaches of my own personal house so I can eat Shorty's whenever I want," Kelly said.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.


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