How I Got My Degree From Hot Dog University

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[Photographs: Aubrey Boonstra]

Growing up, my dad used to take me to Tommy's Red Hots in suburban Crystal Lake for the two hot dog special. I've spent the rest of my life trying to enjoy food as much as I liked wolfing down those dogs with fries and a Mountain Dew. I know nostalgia plays a role in this obsession, but a great Chicago-style hot dog also offers a balance of taste, texture, and color that some pretty good restaurants I know would be incredibly lucky to hit on their best day.

It's with this lifelong love in mind that I resolved to become a master of the hot dog. First step: learn how to run a hot dog cart in the world's finest city for such things.

Going to Hot Dog University

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I've been to college and have a master's degree, but to do justice to this pursuit, I needed to enroll in Hot Dog University, which is totally a real thing. It was partly to get instruction on profit margins and strategy, partly to figure out the nuances that separate successful vendors from unsuccessful ones, and partly because I was really digging the idea of telling people I graduated from Hot Dog University.

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The program is the life's work of Mark Reitman, a 67-year-old Chicago native and current Wisconsin resident who only got into hot dogs professionally after a career as a school counselor and occasional appliance salesman. He started Hot Dog U as a pet project, but Vienna Beef quickly brought him in-house a few years ago to train new vendors. His is the first educational institution to ever offer me a full scholarship. My mother has promised to inform my high school alumni newsletter.

Mark is a retiree, compact and stocky, and has the Chicago accent that you think of when you think the words "Chicago accent." He's also impossible to keep up with as he strides across the factory floor. I've never met someone who loves what he does more—1970s Hugh Hefner would have killed to be so satisfied in his day-to-day. "We are the nation's college of encased meat knowledge," is Mark's practiced one liner, but he seems to be little doubt that he means it.

Mark's classes, both the original "Art of the Cart" I was attending and a newer "Hot Dog Stand" class, take place weekly in Chicago and occasionally in Los Angeles. Class sizes range from two to six, and include a mix of Chicago locals, Koreans, Romanians, and even Germans. (That Germans would come here to learn about sausage seems as great an accolade as any school of higher hot dog learning is likely to get.)

School of Hot Dog Basics

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So, the question that you've been wondering and that I've been asked 600 times: what did I actually learn at Hot Dog University? More details than I ever thought possible.

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The first day is mostly lecture, though calling it that doesn't really represent the mix of extremely entertaining anecdotes and numbers-centric small business instruction. Mark starts with the difference between a hot dog with a natural (pork or lamb) casing and a skinless frank. The distinctive snap of a natural casing dog cannot be improved upon, and all hot dogs used to be sold this way. Skinless franks have the same makeup, but get stuffed into synthetic casings, which are removed by being shot at high speed over razor-sharp blades to remove the blue-striped casings. Kids tend to like the skinless dogs, because they have a softer bite. Kids also put ketchup on hot dogs, but that's neither here nor there.

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The best-known version of the Chicago-style hot dog starts with a natural casing dog that is simmered (never boiled), steamed, or even grilled. It's served on a steamed poppy seed bun—and I can't stress how important the steamed bun is—with, in this order: Yellow mustard, neon green relish, chopped raw onion, two half-slices of tomato, a Kosher dill pickle spear, sport peppers (optional), and celery salt.

Other important lessons:

  • Polish sausage, at least at Vienna Beef, is basically a larger hot dog with more paprika and garlic.
  • The number of hot dogs per pound determines how each is labeled. So if there are six to a pound, then it's listed as a 6:1.
  • The classic Chicago dog is most often an 8:1 size. Elsewhere, like in New York or even at Gene and Jude's in suburban Chicago, the smaller 10:1 is used.
  • A good rule for general traffic at a hot dog stand is that you can plan on 5 percent of foot traffic stopping to make a purchase —you generally hope for 1,000 people an hour passing by. Many a purveyor has taken a bath by picking a spot that looked good without actually scouting how many people pass by.
  • Large 4:1 skinless franks (4 oz. per sausage) seem like a good idea and profit driver, but the toppings start to fall off and the bun isn't particularly up to the task.
  • You're technically not allowed to cook from raw on carts here in Chicago, but a camp stove, some oil, and a bunch of chopped onions creates an aroma that can single-handedly drive traffic when you're slow. You're not technically selling or serving these onions, so think of them like a really Midwestern version of a Yankee Candle.

In addition to knowing the ins and outs of the hot dog business, Mark is the poet laureate of cured sausages. "Your first bite into a natural casing Chicago-style hot dog ... there's a tingling rush of exhilaration and you can't wait for the second bite," he said. "It's about you, and your experience of tasting, and nothing else. At your best, you're trying to create that first bite experience for every customer."

How the Sausage is Made

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As an ex-salesman (who is apparently still licensed to sell used cars in Wisconsin), Mark follows that most hallowed rule of sales—know your product. After an hour introduction in a classroom, we go on a factory tour as comprehensive as OHSA allows.
One of the oldest maxims about hot dogs is that you don't want to see how they're made. But living your hot dog dream means breaking all the rules, so it was a white smock and beard net for me. Plus, if you can't stand to eat something after seeing how it's made, you probably shouldn't be eating it in the first place. All I can say is that after my time on the floor, I didn't feel any need to jump on Twitter and start muckracking like a hashtag-era Upton Sinclair.

Visiting the hot dog floor isn't as easy as you'd expect. Vienna currently offers limited tours, but only until they move to a modernized plant on the South Side later this year. After that, FDA sanitation regulations will largely preclude non-employees from partaking in this bizarro Wonka-scape. That's a shame, because it's the closest thing on earth to Ralph Wiggum's dream of Bovine University.

When you walk onto the production floor, the first thing you notice is that the hot dog factory smells unexpectedly delicious. The second thing is that at least here, there's nary a mechanically-separated meatstuff to be found. Instead, Vienna Beef uses 95 percent lean bull meat, sourced from a variety of purveyors, and a mixture of bone-in brisket and navel cuts. They all come down the conveyor belt into the waiting knives of a handful of butchers who have the highest-paid and most coveted jobs on the production floor.

From there, bull meat and trimmed navel are processed through a vacuum chopper and go into large UFO-looking kettles that emulsify the meat with fat trimmings from the beef, garlic extract, spices, corn syrup, ice, and sodium nitrite curing salt. Each machine handles approximately 4,000 pounds of future hot dogs, which are then stuffed into natural or artificial casings of varying sizes. The artificial casings are machine-stuffed, while the natural casing dogs are stuffed with machine assistance by a half-dozen or so watchful veterans. Both hot dogs are then smoked with hickory sawdust in cavernous temperature-controlled smokers whose components have long outlived the original manufacturers.

Time to Eat

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Full of knowledge and newly-familiar with operations, Mark pulled out his trusty personal cart and let me serve dogs and Polishes in front of the factory loading dock. Our customers? The men and women of Vienna Beef's staff. Apparently, they are not yet sick of hot dogs. I focused my energy on avoiding deadly cart steam and making my mustard squiggles look like they did on the posters of my childhood hot dog stands. Soon, the cart was empty, the employees were sated, and I'd just performed my own personal 1980s training montage, Steve Winwood blaring in my head all the while. It was awesome.

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Vendor trainees at Hot Dog University (everyone but me, really) leave with $350 in rebate coupons for Vienna products and a commitment for another $350 in marketing materials and signage from Vienna, both of which help offset the $699 cost of the class. I left with a binder full of ordering information and further instruction, a blue t-shirt with a glorious hot dog drawing, and the promise that my diploma would be in the mail eventually.

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I'd learned everything that I came to find out, ate a few free hot dogs, and gained a pretty unique line for my resume. But the important work was to come: me, a cart, and a park full of hungry Chicagoans. It was time to enter the poppy-seeded gauntlet and see what it was really like to run a hot dog cart.

Check back next week to read the next installment.

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