Chris Van Jura had an idea – but he needed a catalyst to make it happen.
And the pandemic proved to be the right catalyst for Catalyst Hot Dogs, a food trailer that Van Jura opened outside the Silver Spring Home Depot, when people were both homebound and focused on home improvement.
“When COVID hit, I was the general manager of a nicer, higher level Italian restaurant in D.C. and got laid off,” Van Jura said. “I always had a dream of my own hot dog joint, so when I had to find my own thing, I raised money, found a trailer and created a brand and image.”
Van Jura operated his trailer alone and sold about 30 hot dogs each day for the first six months of 2020? after being let go of his job.
“For the first three to four months of Catalyst, people would go to Home Depot to get things for their homes,” Van Jura said. “They’d start conversations with me and some would offer gigs; we got neighborhood events and a brewery gig.”
Bethesda Big Train, a summer baseball team for college students, found Van Jura at one of his gigs and offered him a position to sell his hot dogs at their stadium that June. The contract required him to hire his first Catalyst employee.
Van Jura has worked at the stadium every summer since 2021 and will be taking over the entire concession stand this season.
“We’re going from just selling hot dogs to running concession stands with cracker jacks and peanuts and popcorn and a grill station as well as plant-based vegan options,” Van Jura said.
University of Maryland sophomore Cassidy Gleiberman found Catalyst at a Big Train game two years ago and looks forward to visiting it each summer. She followed Van Jura to Denizens to eat his food during the school year too.
“This guy ran Catalyst hot dogs, which was a cool hot dog truck with lit toppings, that I would get at Bethesda baseball games during the summer,” Gleiberman said. “Now I try to go to Denizens twice a month to eat his food, including garlic knot pigs in the blankets, which are to die for.”
Van Jura got his first job at a restaurant in 2001, going into his sophomore year of college. This was a popular job among his peers.
“It was a means to an end until it became everything I am,” Van Jura said.
Van Jura’s Irish and Italian origin was a big part of his upbringing: his family placed great importance on meals and hospitality. As a northern New Jersey native, Van Jura was always around hot dogs; he said it “is in many ways the hot dog capital because of the plethora of hot dog stands there.” His background and childhood inspired him to work in restaurants and make hot dogs for a living.
“It was always going to be a hot dog joint, there was no question about that,” Van Jura said.
Catalyst joined Denizens, which is located in The Station at Riverdale Park, in January 2023. Catalyst runs the kitchen and Denizens, and, in addition to owning the place, serves the beer.
Van Jura makes hot dogs, chicken wings, french fries and pretzels. The kitchen is open six days each week, but will be open everyday this May. Van Jura now has three full-time and three part-time employees.
During the pandemic, Emily Bruno, owner of Denizens, felt the place should focus on the core of their business, making beer. She wanted someone else to run the kitchen. Van Jura’s New Jersey roots appealed to Bruno.
“There are many New Jersey students at UMD that come, and Jeff, our head brewer, is from New Jersey,” said Bruno. “We loved the concept that this would appeal to college students and families, and we’re really starting to see the impact. More people are coming in for beers and hot dogs.”