An American Tradition Goes Upscale

"A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz." That's what Humphrey Bogart, American icon, said way back when. Today, the once-lowly hot dog has become an icon of its own, especially at sporting events around the world.

Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer fans all share one passion: hot dogs, in their infinite variations. Sports fan or not, most Americans enjoy this tasty treat at home, where it's always ready to boil or fry and eat in a jiffy. Out of dogs? Just head to one of the growing number of quick-service restaurants serving hot dogs along with their other fare. Or drop in at one of the growing number of franchise restaurants specializing in the fine art of the "tube steak."

The hot dog has more names than perhaps any other food: frankfurters, wieners, footlongs, redhot, corn dog, chili dog, cheese dog, Depression sandwich, Coney dog, Michigan dog, Chicago dog, Jersey breakfast dog, Fenway Frank, Dodger Dog, and many, many more. (Trivia: The Dodger Dog is Major League Baseball's best-selling stadium dog.)

Then there are the toppings: mustard, ketchup, chopped onion, onion in red sauce (New York street vendors), relish, sauerkraut, chili, cheese, coleslaw, pickle, tomato, chile pepper... Even the buns are a hot topic among aficionados, who argue over whether the bread should be steamed or toasted, or have poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or none.

And no article about hot dogs is complete without mentioning the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, first built 1936. A much-updated Wienermobile was spotted carrying on the tradition in Omaha, Neb., in August 2006 and in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in September.

Among hot dog franchises today, the old man on the bun is Nathan's Famous, which started as a nickel hot dog stand in 1916 in New York's Coney Island. Today Nathan's has more than 350 franchises, and co-brands with Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips, Miami Subs Grill, and Kenny Rogers Roasters. The publicly traded company has even signed international master franchise agreements in Egypt and Israel.

Out on the West Coast, nearly 50 years later, Wienerschnitzel (formerly Der Wienerschnitzel)-which also started as a single hot dog stand, but in 1961-was busy helping to create the drive-through in California. Wienerschnitzel began franchising in 1965, and today claims to be the world's largest hot dog fast food chain, selling upwards of 80 million hot dogs per year in more than 350 locations.

In the Midwest, hot dogs are serious business, especially in Chicago and the surrounding states. Pittsburgh's PBS station, KQED, produced an hour-long feature, "A Hot Dog Program," profiling many of the small, family-owned doggeries in the region and beyond. One popular definition of a Chicago-style dog: a steamed or boiled all-beef, natural-casing hot dog on a poppy-seed bun, topped with mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, chili peppers, and a dash of celery salt... but never, never ketchup, not even a drop.

Chicago-based Gold Coast Dogs, opened 1985, is a good example of a small Midwestern franchise. The brand has about 25 sites, half family-owned and half franchised. Gold Coast sells both steam and char dogs.

Woody's Chicago Style-a relative newcomer to a market where third- and fourth-generations are selling hot dogs based on secret family recipes-actually began on the streets of Waikiki in Honolulu in 1987. Also known as Woody's Hot Dogs, the company began franchising in 1991. Most of its more than 100 cart-owning franchisees are located on the West Coast. In 2001, the company inked a deal to build more than 300 sites at Lowe's stores.

Based in Oregon, Angel's Hot Dogs sells its all-beef palate pups in restaurants with a 1950s-style storefront. Specialties of this family-owned brand include the Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage, Veggie Dog, and Turkey Dog. Franchisees also can provide customers with a cool, creamy dessert through the company's sister brand, Angel's Ice Cream.

One of the quirkier, more entertaining entrants in hot dog land, Doogie's Restaurants ("Home of the Two Foot Hot Dog"), began in Maine. Its two-foot-long hot dogs, nestled in two-foot-long buns, are a sight to be held. Total investment for a unit is about $150,000, with a flat royalty rate after the franchise fee of $9900.

Another small doggery from the Northeast, New England Hot Dog Company ("gourmet hotdogs, unleashed"), opened in 2004 and began franchising the next year. The company, with only four sites to date, has set its culinary sights high. Customers can choose from 25 menu combinations named for places around New England on 13 different types of dogs or create their own "Smorgasdog" with any (or all) of 48 toppings.

Sausages, kissing cousins to the venerable hot dog, are also branching out and moving upscale. On the West Coast, Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom offers gourmet sausages and hot dogs. Started by Jordan Monkarsh in 1979 as a stand in Venice Beach, Calif., the company began franchising in 1998. Monkarsh, whose father owned a butcher shop, serves such exotic items as Bombay Curried Lamb, Yucatan Chicken sausages, and, of course, a Coney Island-style all-beef hot dog.

Back in New York, another gourmet sausage company is trying to make its mark. Mandler's the Original Sausage Company sells 11 different types of grilled "European-style" sausages on freshly baked buns. These 9.5-inch pedigreed pups, spiced up by the store's elaborate mustard bar, are touted as an alternative to a full meal and have received rave reviews from local food critics.

Other notable hot dog and sausage franchises (among many!) include WindMill Gourmet Fast Food, based in Northern New Jersey, founded in 1976 and franchising since 1991; Famous Uncle Al's Hot Dogs, which opened in 1985 on the East Coast; and The Hottest Dog, offering gourmet sausages and hot dogs since 1927 in Oregon, via Arkansas.

For anyone considering joining the centuries-old tradition of selling spiced and flavored meats and all the trimmings wrapped in bread, entry costs are relatively low, ranging from about $40,000 or $50,000 for cart- or kiosk-based units up to $150,000 to $400,000 for fixed locations with a full menu of hot dogs, sausages, and related mains and sides. All in all, there's a lot of room for growth in the U.S., where annual hot dog sales are measured in the billions.

Published: October 26th, 2006

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