That ripple you felt through the encased meat world last week? It's true. Hot Doug's, Chicago's and perhaps the country's most famous hot dog stand, plans to close on October 4. Though there are still a few months until the last batch of duck fat fries emerges from the oil, I feel like I should be absolutely devastated. But you know what I first thought when I heard Hot Doug's was closing? I wasn't surprised or disappointed; it just sounded like something Doug would do.
Instead of making some grand announcement, he announced the closing of his cherished spot by dropping this cryptic line on his website: "Oh by the way, permanent vacation begins Saturday, October 4." Genuine surprise would have been to find out Doug was secretly a vegetarian or that he was actually an actor owned by some evil multinational corporation. But Doug deciding to close the restaurant he founded simply because he wanted to? Well, that's just how he rolls.
Honestly, he's been hinting at this for awhile now. In the introduction to Hot Doug's: The Book, Doug notes that he initially resisted writing a book because it would "legitimize the restaurant," and he preferred to think of it as "a pop-up restaurant, some sort of sham that people will finally realize is a hoax."
He's always acted nonchalant about his success, and it's true that Hot Doug's is just a hot dog stand. But he's also completely wrong, because while there are hundreds of other hot dog stands in Chicago, there is only one Hot Doug's.
What made Hot Doug's so special? Sure, he launched the whole creatively-topped hot dog craze, but it didn't take long for other restaurants to copy the format, source some alligator sausage, think of a loopy name, and open their doors. Yet, none of these places has even come close to matching the popularity of Hot Doug's.
The reason: Doug was always there. Though the shop could easily have pulled in customers until late at night, it was only open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., because Doug always took the orders. (I liked to think of Hot Doug's as having bankers' hours, though most banks actually open earlier in the day.) If he went on vacation, the restaurant closed its doors. This ensured a level of quality control completely unheard of for a hot dog stand. More importantly, he personified the restaurant in a way logos or mascots always try to, but never attain.
When I forced my parents to visit a hot dog stand with a 45-minute wait, I'm sure they thought I was insane. But I knew it would be worth it when we finally got to the counter to see Doug cracking jokes. My parents still talk about the encounter. And every other customer has had roughly the same experience. The line was sometimes longer or shorter, but the experience never wavered.
Doug also cared enough to do things right. It's easy for food writers like myself to bemoan restaurants for cutting corners and failing to put effort into each dish, but we tend to ignore the reality and economics of actually running a place. Doug knew what it would take to run a great hot dog stand, and then he actually did the work. This is actually a bigger deal than it sounds.
I should note that Doug did go to culinary school at Kendall College, which partially explains why even the most out-there sounding sausage on the menu still had a sense of balance missing from the imitators (one of the most popular offerings was a foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli). A group of us tried every single item on the menu—25 items in total—and there wasn't a bum note in the whole thing, from the Chicago-style hot dog and bratwurst to the mini-bagel dogs and tater tots.
What I remember most from that crazy day wasn't necessarily the food. I had contacted Doug before our visit, just let him know that a big group of us were coming to order everything on the menu, and ask for his blessing. When ten of us showed up, he already had our order filled out and ready to fire. His crew had even lined several tables up, so we could all sit together. Our tale was even included in his book (it's on page 160).
Doug could have capitalized on all this good will and franchised. And could we really have blamed him for cashing in? Doesn't he deserve fame and fortune for coming up with such a genuinely great restaurant concept? But no, he decided to close up shop, while Hot Doug's is generally regarded as the best hot dog stand in the country.
As sad as it is to think of a world without Hot Doug's, it's honestly the line that I'm going to miss the most. Instead of making people angry and anxious, the line at Hot Doug's brought people together in a way few restaurants ever have. I can't tell you how many times I witnessed first timers wondering aloud if this was all worth it, only for regulars to assure them that it definitely was.