Army veteran shares how he became CEO of fastest-growing hot dog company in the US
In February 2020, when former Army Capt. Joe Quinn began to hear about a new virus dubbed COVID-19, that could lead to a global pandemic, he went shopping. Never mind stocking up on toilet paper or hand sanitizer; Quinn was after a bigger purchase — a bulk order of beef from a meat processor.
That purchase proved critical in helping Feltman’s of Coney Island Hot Dogs, the veteran-owned-and-operated Gold Star family business Joe and his brother Michael launched in 2015, to not only survive what indeed turned out to be a worldwide pandemic but thrive. Feltman’s has experienced skyrocketing sales these past few months, strengthening its position as the fastest-growing hot dog company in the United States.
A West Point graduate, Quinn served two tours in Iraq, went on to earn an advanced degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and then spent eight months in Afghanistan as part of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT).
“Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart,” Quinn said. “The combination of leadership, resiliency, and determination that you gain from the military is really valuable in a start-up environment. One thing you learn is to always have a plan, however imperfect, and to have a strategy for anything you might face. So early in the pandemic, we were talking about what would happen if meat plants were exposed to the virus and forced to shut down. Because of that early beef purchase we were always able to meet our delivery orders to supermarkets and boost our direct-to-consumers e-commerce while some of our competitors ran out of product.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, the three Quinn brothers — Joe, Michael, and Jimmy — would often stroll the boardwalk of Coney Island, the seaside amusement district, with their grandfather. He’d regale his grandsons with tales of the first-ever hot dog on a bun, created by a German baker named Charles Feltman, who sold them out of a pushcart on the dunes of the Coney Island Beach and, later, from the block-long Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion.
Feltman’s closed in 1954, and Joe, Michael, and Jimmy often talked about reviving the boardwalk favorite. Tragically, Jimmy, then 23, died on 9/11 in the World Trade Center attacks. It was in Jimmy’s honor that Joe and Michael launched the company.
As CEO, Quinn leads a team that has collectively served more than 100 months in combat overseas. Here are some key military training lessons that they apply daily:
Physicalize a plan.
“The military instills a get-up-and-go attitude. That means when you come up with an idea, instead of getting caught up in a round-robin of talk, talk, talk, you take action through concrete steps. Ask yourself, ‘How does this idea physically happen? How do I build it?’ Mike and I talked about starting Feltman’s at a bar one night, and by the next morning I already had the beginnings of a website.”
Recognize the difference between detail and rigor.
“Rigor is focusing on the things that really matter to a business, rather than getting caught up in small details that have nothing to do with your bottom line. Right now, we’re looking for new office space so we can do our own order fulfillment. We’re touring seven different possible spaces in a day and evaluating factors like, ‘What’s the price point? Where’s the nearest UPS location? What’s the nearest subway stop?’ What we’re not paying much attention to are details like the color of the walls.”
“In business and in leadership a lot of things come at you. It’s important to get out of the battle rhythm of answering emails all day, take a step back, and collect your thoughts. That might mean getting out of the office and going for a walk, a run, a swim. I’ll sometimes say to my team, ‘Let’s take a time out to get some clarity.’ When you have that clarity, you gain perspective — yes, starting a business is hard, but look at what we’re doing together — and that allows you to move forward purposefully.”
Embrace a “People First, Mission Always” philosophy.
“If you’re taking a hill with your squad the Army saying ‘Mission First, People Always’ makes sense, but when veterans are back home, I think it’s important to reverse that. As a CEO, I put my team first, asking myself, ‘What can I do to make them successful?’ Because if you’re making your team successful the mission will take care of itself. And, after all, we’re not in Afghanistan and no one is shooting at us. We can always make more hot dogs in the morning.”
“Supporting the military veteran community is a crusade for my family,” Quinn said. Feltman’s philanthropic efforts include providing thousands of free hot dogs to medical professionals battling the pandemic on the frontlines; helping to raise awareness and funds for Task Force 22, the Infinite Hero Foundation’s suicide prevention initiative; and donating 100% of sales proceeds on holiday weekends to nonprofits like Tuesday’s Children, which supports families of 9/11 victims, first responders, and fallen military service members; TAPS (the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors); and Headstrong, a nonprofit that provides free mental health care to post 9/11 veterans.