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Late-night crowds can find hot dog heaven in Garland District and downtown with Vern Cooks

If you have ever wandered the streets of downtown Spokane during the late hours of the night, you may have noticed that there are not many eateries open. Wyatt Campbell, who was until recently the sous chef at Gander and Ryegrass, has created a company that seeks to remedy the late-night munchies.

“I really had that feeling that I could pull off this side gig and take advantage of the busy late-night crowds,” Campbell said.

Vern Cooks is a food stand that specializes in “gourmet hot dogs with a twist” and is available four nights a week at various outdoor locations in Spokane. It has been in business for around seven months, and Campbell is Vern Cooks’ sole employee. Campbell says a lot of what he makes at Vern Cooks has been inspired by Gander and Ryegrass menus.

Having hot dog stands outside of bars is not an uncommon business practice, but the public has responded with enthusiastic approval.

“As challenging as it’s been, it’s been cool to see the feedback from people who appreciate someone being out there late to serve food when there are not a lot of other options available at those times,” Campbell said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how Spokane has received me and supported me.

“I’ve had a ton of really awesome feedback, and it seems the city really wants more late-night options.”

Campbell’s middle name is “Vern,” after his grandfather, whom he never met. He has gone by this nickname his entire life with family members and says he likes that his family can see his name and think of his grandfather.

Campbell grew up in Deer Park, before moving to Seattle at 20, where he cooked professionally for 12 years.

“Coming home, first getting my foot in the door in the Spokane culinary scene, has been really neat,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of talented people here who really care about their craft, and that has been the biggest support.”

Campbell says he wouldn’t be able to succeed as a business owner without the help of his wife, Jenna Campbell, who helps him prep for work and raise their two children, Eisley and Jayden.

His inspiration for Vern Cooks began when he would make hot dogs for the staff at Gander and Ryegrass every Friday night after the restaurant closed. Though he has since expanded, Campbell still has the opportunity to host special events at Gander and Ryegrass.

Campbell was still working as the full-time sous chef at Gander and Ryegrass for the first four months of Vern Cooks’ existence, but he has since stepped down to take over the lunch menu and accommodate his hot dog cart business. He initially set up his cart once per week, but since switching roles, he has committed to serving Spokane’s night crowd four nights a week, even during the cold winter months.

“I’ve invested in a tent and some really nice new heaters. It’s a whole new set of challenges having to thaw my cart, and it takes about twice as long to set up as it did in the summer, because I have to wait for the water to get up to temp,” Campbell said. “I really have no choice but to go out there every chance I can, so I adapted and prepared for the weather.”

Vern Cooks can be found from 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursdays in the Garland District and outside the Volstead Act from 9 p.m. to 2-3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Campbell sells anywhere from 30 to 150 hot dogs per shift.

Campbell also caters private events, for which he prepares hot dogs, occasionally from scratch.

Campbell says deciding on locations to station his cart has been a learning curve. He has been offered locations for his stand by several business owners and has also gone door-to-door asking permission from business owners in ideal locations.

Campbell’s ultimate goal is to “go full boar at Vern Cooks.” His aims this summer to have three hot dog carts up and running, during lunch and late night . Campbell has purchased the additional hot dog carts, so now he is ready to hire staff for the stands.

“My goal for the summer is to have three operating carts and to continue to show up for Spokane and continue to provide a cool experience with a quality product,” Campbell said.

Still working full-time at Gander and Ryegrass while simultaneously focusing on Vern Cooks, Campbell is working 80-plus-hour weeks.

“It has taught me perseverance and to show up every day and not give up,” Campbell said. “It’s important for a business owner to be open-minded regarding overcoming obstacles, like changing up the menu and the location, and continuing to work hard. It’s starting to feel easier as I get more used to the grind.”

He prepares his hot dog meat at Gander and Ryegrass and actively prepares hot dogs as customers order.

Classic hot dogs sell for $6 and are topped with ketchup, mustard, relish and sauerkraut. Chili dogs are sold for $8 and are topped with chili, jack cheese, jalapenos and bacon bits. Specialty dogs are sold for $10. One of the most popular specialty dogs is called the truffle boy, which is topped with sautéed onions, truffle aioli, bacon bits and fried onions.

While some may consider owning and operating a food stand an unsustainable business plan, Campbell is on board with the benefits.

“There are a lot of plus sides; you aren’t paying for a bunch of staff, you aren’t paying rent on a building space and you’re able to pop up in random locations,” Campbell said. “There are so many benefits to doing it.”

The valuable experience Campbell has gained as a business owner is attributable to “the personal growth and learning how to grow a company; I’m learning how to overcome challenges and make executive decisions.

“To anyone else thinking about starting something like this, I’d just say go for it,” he said. “It’s scary, and it’s small, but if you do it right and work hard, it will be worth it.”

Liam Bradford's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.