Danny ‘YoYo’ Kim: The man behind Rice Village’s beloved hot dog stand
People line up for hot dogs from YoYo’s Hot Dog, the beloved food stand in Rice Village. YoYo’s has a special place in the hearts of many Rice students. (Allen Sellers/Thresher)
Most people outside of the Houston area would be surprised to see a hot dog topped with cream cheese, grilled onions, crunchy fried onions, honey mayo and curry ketchup. However, at YoYo’s Hot Dog in Rice Village, that is the norm.
Open only three nights a week, YoYo’s Hot Dog is a popular hot dog stand that expands the definition of what a hot dog can be and caters to students who want a late night snack, staying open until 2:30 a.m. on Thursdays and 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. When YoYo’s is open, it is almost impossible to walk down Morningside Drive and avoid seeing the massive line of people spaced out on the sidewalk eagerly awaiting hot dogs.
The owner and creator of YoYo’s Hot Dog is Danny Kim, also known as YoYo — a nickname he got from a former business partner. Kim took on his former partner’s nickname when they parted ways as they had already decided to name their hot dog stand YoYo’s.
Kim started his culinary career by learning how to make sushi while helping at his family’s restaurant, Maki Yaki Grill, in Los Angeles, California, he said.
“I originally planned to open up a sushi restaurant in Houston, but I changed my mind because the overhead [costs] and the price of the fish market skyrocketed,” Kim said. “That's when I thought about opening up a mobile food truck. I picked hot dogs because there are taco trucks, hamburger trucks but not really hot dog trucks … hot dogs are America's iconic food.”
YoYo’s hot dog recipe draws on his background making sushi along with what he described as a broad culinary curiosity to create an entirely new experience of a classic American dish. The hot dogs at YoYo’s incorporate a diverse range of influences and cultures to create their distinctive taste.
“A hot dog is a simple food, but simplicity is the most difficult,” Kim said. “Some of my ingredients came from New York, Seattle, India, China, Korea, and I still believe my recipe is not complete.”
Kim broadens the appeal of a hot dog to reach new audiences by including a vegetarian option and excluding pork from his hot dogs.
“I have a lot of international customers including Muslims because I do not use pork,” Kim said. “In fact, I do not eat pork.”
Even as he makes hot dogs for an immense line of people — a job some may consider stressful — Kim is personable and said he tries to form meaningful connections with his customers.
“I am fully aware that the wait time gets more than an hour, and the line gets longer and longer on weekends, but I try to make each and every hot dog as consistently as possible for those customers who waited a long time and still have interactions with them,” Kim said.
When he isn’t operating his stand, Kim said he spends time with his family and prepares for business days.
“The other four days, I still have to work two days running errands, preparations for the business, and the other two days I try to spend time with my family,” Kim said. “I try to enjoy my life as much as I can.”
Kim said he does not have to rely on putting money into advertising to get customers as much of YoYo’s attention comes from word of mouth. Many people introduce their friends to YoYo’s after they go there or post excitedly about their hot dogs online.
“Social media has helped me a lot,” Kim said. “People enjoy it and want to share the goodness with their friends.”
YoYo’s has a special place in the hearts of many Rice students and faculty. It is a perennial suggestion in conversations around 1 a.m. on campus, even when students are not particularly hungry. For many students, indulging in a hot dog from YoYo’s with their friends is one of their first experiences in college outside of Rice’s campus. This is especially true of students not from the Houston area, who brave the line to get a taste of a hot dog that so many people rave about.
Caleb Huang, a freshman at Will Rice College, said he first saw YoYo’s Hot Dog while getting dinner at Torchy’s with his family before Orientation Week. Huang, who is originally from California, had never heard of YoYo’s. He was perplexed by the line and felt a need to try it as soon as he could.
For people like Huang, YoYo’s is more than just a place to get a late night bite.
“What leaves me in awe is his ability to create such an impactful business with the most simple resources,” Huang said. “From three propped up tables and a few portable box grills, YoYo is a reminder that novelty and resourcefulness are the greatest defining factors towards anyone's ability to turn their ideas into reality.”
Aside from serving great food, YoYo serves as an inspiration to many for his work ethic and ability to create something unique from the seemingly simple idea of a hot dog stand. For Huang, YoYo is an exemplar of success in the culinary world.
“YoYo has mastered every aspect of a successful food business, from the small action of signing his hotdogs with glowing streams of sauce to the masterpiece of pure efficiency and teamwork of dishing out batches of 25 plus hotdogs every seven minutes,” he said.
YoYo’s hot dogs are often surprising even to people who have been told what to expect. For freshman Evan Dunbar at Duncan College, the toppings came as a complete surprise.
“I never knew hot dogs could be that fancy,” Dunbar said. “I didn’t even know they existed, I’m just used to mustard and relish on a grilled hotdog.”
Kim said he loves to hear stories from customers that show the stand’s positive impact on his community.
“A girl told me that her parents never agreed on anything until they tried YoYo's,” Kim said. “Another good one is that customers in the line became friends and they got married. They are both hot dog lovers.”
Due to the immense success of the stand, regulars have pondered whether YoYo’s Hot Dog will open a brick-and-mortar establishment in the near future. However, as of now, the mobile stand has proved to be advantageous in the age of COVID-19.
“I think more people come to your restaurant now with outside dining, patio dining, and stuff like that,” Kim said.
Although the mobile nature of the stand has helped with the unique situation of this year, Kim is looking over his options to find the best path for a balance between his work and family life.
“A lot of people have approached me wanting to be business partners,” Kim said. “But I’m deciding between whether I should make more money and put more time on myself or live comfortably right now and enjoy my life.”
While thinking over this choice, Kim is also interested in other, nontraditional ways to bring his hot dogs to more people.
“If the opportunity allows, I would love to take this concept to the airport,” Kim said. “If anyone can take me there, I'd love to talk.”
YoYo’s Hot Dog is open from 8 p.m. to 2:30 a.m on Thursdays and 8 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays in Rice Village.
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