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Hot dog! CJ’s opens in Perham

Jayne and Chris Erwin pose near a classic car mural that Chris painted on a wall inside the couple’s new restaurant in Perham. The Erwins enlisted the help of family members and Refreshing Designs Studio to create the look and feel of the restaurant, which serves all-American fare such as specialty hot dogs and burgers. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

Just when you thought there was nowhere to get a foot-long hot dog anymore, CJ’s Garage and Grill proves that some all-American classics will never stop being relished.

This new restaurant and tavern in Perham turns Nathan’s third-pound foot-longs into a signature menu item. Add mac and cheese with crumbled bacon to one and you’ve got the “Mac Daddy Dog.” Top with sautéed onions and garlic and it’s the “Guard Dog.” In all, CJ’s offers 10 different variations of the hot dog, giving each one its own unique twist.

The dogs share the menu with other American classics, such as burgers, pie, root beer floats, milk shakes and fries. There are also some less common appetizers, like deep fried pickle spears, fried green beans and “Texas Toothpicks” (fried jalapenos and onion rings), among others.

Owned by Chris and Jayne Erwin, CJ’s opened March 28, and has been even busier than the couple hoped – so much so that they even ran out of those giant hot dogs at one point.

And so far, the reception has been very positive, the Erwins said, with people seeming to appreciate the family-friendly atmosphere.

“You’ll notice there are no beer signs on the walls,” said Chris, looking around the garage-themed restaurant in an interview last week. Instead, there are numerous license plates, shiny hubcaps, flat screen TVs, chrome-like accents and even a life-size mural of a classic car.

“While we have a full bar and liquor license, that wasn’t what we were trying to be all about,” Chris explained. “We were hoping our target market would be families… while also, at some level, taking advantage of a late-night market, too.”

The couple’s focus on family isn’t just professional, it’s personal. They came to Perham to raise a family of their own.

“Family is very important to us, and from what we researched about Perham, we felt like it was exactly the kind of community that we wanted to raise a family in,” said Chris. “We wanted to put some roots down and see our business grow with our family.”

The Erwins, who were married last July, met in Nevada and had been living in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area for the past three years. They had been looking to get back to the Midwest – Jayne’s family is from Mayville, N.D. – when they came across a commercial lease opportunity on Craigslist, at what is now the CJ’s location behind The Station House in Perham.

They saw the place, talked it over, and decided to go for it.

“We thought, let’s just do it,” said Jayne. “No regrets.”

With previous experience as a business and restaurant entrepreneur, Chris felt prepared to run his own place. Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, he opened a Dave and Buster’s there, and then opened another in Honolulu. As the bar manager at that 180,000-square-foot restaurant, he had 27 bartenders working for him.

“So that was a little different scenario,” he said with a laugh while looking around the much smaller CJ’s. “It’s more stressful running your own business, but you also get more freedom (to do things your own way).”

In the immediate future, the couple plans to enlist the help of friends and family during busier times at CJ’s, and, eventually, they’d like to hire some part-time workers. But for now, it’s just the two of them, and that makes for some long work days.

The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. every day, and stays open late, closing at midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 10 p.m. most other nights (except Sundays, when it closes at 9 p.m.). For now, CJ’s is closed on Mondays, but by summer it’ll be open seven days a week.

That keeps the couple well occupied, yet they’re still finding time to get involved in the community.

They’ve been here since mid-December, getting CJ’s up to snuff and getting to know the people and places of Perham.

Since then Jayne, who has past experience as a special needs teacher, has done some substitute teaching at the schools here, and Chris, a former wrestling coach, has plans to get involved with the Perham wrestling program.

Jayne has also been frequenting the Perham Area Community Center in the mornings, where she’s getting up to speed for her next marathon. The pair is also meeting people through their involvement with Cross Point Community Church.

Wanting to give something back to the community, they plan to hold a hot dog eating contest and fundraiser in July, with proceeds going to Kinship of the Perham Area.

So far, they said, they’re really liking it here.

“We’re getting into a routine,” said Jayne.

In the future, they’d like to do more community events and fundraisers at CJ’s, and Chris hopes to pack the house as an official headquarters for UFC fights and other pay-per-view programs.

“Our philosophy is really killing them with kindness; good, exceptional customer service,” said Chris. “And I think if you have that philosophy, over time people will know when they come here that that’s what they should be expecting.”patrons sigs

For more information about CJ’s, visit or the CJ’s facebook page, or call 218-346-4257.

CJ’s is located at 103 East Main Street.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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