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Old Salty Dog owner dishes on origin story of its quirky menu, sustained success

This astute businesswoman and restaurateur shares her insights on hot dogs, horses, happy employees — and the secret sauce behind running one of the most popular restaurants on the keys.


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  • | 6:30 p.m. November 10, 2022
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Before owning a chain of Old Salty Dog restaurants, Judy Fryer already had two careers. She began nursing at 18 years old. In her mid-20s, she took a break to travel the world as a British Airways flight attendant for two years, then returned to nursing in a surgical unit. Born in England, she also lived in St. Croix and New York City before moving to Siesta Key in 1979 when she was 41.

“I needed something completely new,” says Fryer, “So I came over with my two dogs.  And then I met Philip.” Philip Needs is Fryer’s partner in life and business. They’ve been together for 38 years; married for 20. The pair’s first foray into the restaurant business was buying a share in a 60-seat restaurant called Pirate’s Cove, where, says Fryer, the two learned the trade. “There were four of us, and we did everything — the cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, everything.” The couple sold their shares in Pirate’s Cove to open the first Old Salty Dog, on Siesta Key, in 1985.  There are now two more locations on City Island and in Venice.

At 83, Fryer still makes the final decisions but hung up her apron years ago. Needs is retired but can still be found at the Venice location on Wednesday nights where he performs with his band, The Relics.

 

Beergarita (Courtesy photo)
Beergarita (Courtesy photo)
We came up with the name Old Salty Dog because …

There was a little hot dog place on Siesta Key called Mustard’s Last Stand. We were in there one day, and they told us they were selling. So, we bought it. We wanted it to be an oyster bar, but we wanted to keep the hot dog concept. There was already a place called the Salty Dog, so we ended up calling it the Old Salty Dog.

 

The original concept was …

When we started on Siesta Key, it was an English pub/oyster bar. We had a cricket team and a flag football team because my husband was into sports. Philip was the cook, and I was the bartender and waitress. He did the cleaning, and I did all the books. On Thanksgiving, we had a big cricket tournament.

 

Salty Dog (Photo by Lori Sax)
Salty Dog (Photo by Lori Sax)
Don’t leave without trying …

Our famous Salty Dog (a quarter-pound hot dog dipped in batter and fried). One day Philip suggested dipping the hot dog into batter — and, well, the rest is history. (The “Fully Loaded Salty Dog” is loaded with sauerkraut, bacon, grilled onions and mushrooms and plenty of cheese.)

 

We hire employees who …

Enjoy working here. I want them to really love coming here, and most do. They’re all friends, and they all pitch in. The only thing is they are not allowed to swear in my kitchen. When you have a swearing, unhappy cook, it goes straight into the food.

 

The type of restaurant I look for when I’m traveling is …

Local. If I’m in England, I go to an English pub.

 

My favorite type of customer is …

The ones who have fun. We have fun with our customers, and on Wednesdays, we get them all up dancing.

 

My least favorite type of customer is …

The people who order things that they should not order and then complain. A woman ordered a grouper sandwich and then complained that it tasted like fish. What are you going to do with someone like that?   

 

When I’m not working, I’m …

I have a 25-acre farm and keep busy. I had 11 rescue horses, but I’m down to four now. I also do equine eventing with a horse and carriage. This became a sport when Prince Phillip, who was a polo player, hurt his back but still wanted to do something with horses. Princess Anne was an eventing rider and said he could do that with carriages, so it became an official sport.

 

If I was to start another Old Salty Dog, I would locate it …

Heavens! I would never open another Old Salty Dog. But if I had to open another restaurant, it would be an English pub with a garden and a pond and I’d call it the Fairy Dog, and then I’d have a little place where you could ride up and put your horse while you enjoy lunch.

 

My main message for someone wanting to start a restaurant in this area is …

Choose a spot that has a lovely view. That’s the most important thing.