Foot-long frenzy

by Larry Aylward
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America’s foot-long hot dog has a lengthy history. While the beloved wiener is viewed as somewhat of a gimmick these days, hot dog lore has it that the foot-long was introduced so impoverished people could enjoy a cheap meal during the Great Depression.

According to history, the footlong was launched at a Chicago amusement park in the 1930s. The park’s owner, George Schmidt, created it as an inexpensive meal for visitors who couldn’t afford to eat in the park’s restaurants.

“It was no odd sight to see a mother accompanied by two children out at [the park] – purchasing one hot dog for 2 cents and a bottle of pop for the same price, and see all three have a bite of the hot dog and a few swigs of the pop. Times were that tough,” Schmidt said in an interview in 1948.

There’s no doubt that foot-longs and regular hot dogs are sold for a similar reason today; they make for an inexpensive meal. But there’s also no doubt that foot-long hot dog processors are capitalizing on its novelty these days to increase  overall hot dog sales. And the guess here is that footlongs today provide more of an amusement than they did during the Great Depression.

Everybody's game

Buffalo, NY-based Sahlen’s, which opened in 1869, has been selling foot-longs for years. Mark Battistoni, regional sales manager for Sahlen’s, views the foot-long as a fun and lucrative gimmick.

“It’s not a huge part of the business, but it’s an important part of our business,” Battistoni says. “It’s more of novelty than anything.”

Sahlen’s is known throughout Buffalo for its hot dogs. The foot-long helps define the brand, Battistoni says. A Sahlen’s foot-long weighs more than a regular hot dog, but not twice as much. Still, the company prices the foot-long at double a regular hot dog’s cost, making for a better profi t margin. The price is warranted because of the foot-long’s novelty nature.

“We make them weekly in fairly large quantities for a company our size,” says Battistoni, noting Sahlen’s also processes deli meats. “Our business is in the 20 million-lb.-range per year. Hot dogs comprise about 3 to 4 million lbs. The foot-long is a small segment of that.”

Steve Vacanti, director of marketing for Rochester, NY-based Zweigle’s, smells opportunity when he gets a whiff of the company’s foot-longs cooking on the grill.

Vacanti joined Zweigle’s last year to help step up marketing for its foot-long hot dogs. Zweigle’s, a meat processor that has been around since 1880, is taking the foot-long in a new direction – on a wider route. It’s offering a half-pounder.

“It’s a beast,” Vacanti says. “It creates a presence on a plate. It’s certainly a novelty item. It’s never going to outsell the standard-size hot dog, but if you put it on the menu, it’s going to get some attention.”

Zweigle’s has only been selling the half-lb. foot-long at the local arena where the city’s minor-league hockey team plays, but the company wants to expand its presence. Zweigle’s also sells a quarter-lb. foot-long.

“We’re getting it in front of some potential customers,” Vacanti says. “Without fail, it’s getting a lot of attention.”

John Koegel, president of Flint, Mich.-based Koegel Meats, says his company has been making foot-longs for as long as he can remember. Koegel Meats opened in 1916. He agrees the foot-long is a novelty.

“When we first get them out, they sell like crazy and then sales start to wane as the summer goes on,” Koegel says. “If you don’t have them cleared out by Labor Day, you eat them – no pun intended.”

The foot-long business has been steady over the years, Koegle says. It pumps up the company’s overall hot dog business by about 50,000 lbs. in the summer.

Foot-longs and foodservice

Processors agree the foot-long does best in particular settings, like carnivals, fairs, festivals and sporting events. It’s a better fit for foodservice than retail.

“Retail sales are limited because of the availability of [foot-long] rolls,” Battistoni says.

Not surprisingly, foot-longs are mostly enjoyed from the spring through the summer. Also, not surprisingly, that’s the length of the baseball season. Hot dogs, of course, are arguably baseball’s favorite food.

Sahlen’s has a contract at Coca-Cola Field, where the local minor league baseball team plays. If the summer is nice and fans pack the stadium, foot-longs are a hit. Sahlen’s also has a solid summer foot-long business thanks to Ted’s Charcoal-Broiled Hot Dogs. Ted’s is a staple in the Buffalo area and its seven locations are known for its foot-longs, which Sahlen’s supplies.

“Ted’s is our biggest customer, and it does a nice job with our foot-longs,” Battistoni says.

Sahlen’s also gets a boost from independent hot dog stands, which peddle its foot-longs. Battistoni also credits a local bakery for the Sahlen’s foot-long success. If you’re going to sell foot-longs, you better have somebody to supply the oversized buns.

Vacanti is aiming to expand Zweigle’s foot-long business in the Rochester area. The target audience is simple – people who enjoy grilling and sports.

Vacanti is working to get the half-lb. foot-long in eateries that serve garbage plates or versions of it. The garbage plate is a Rochester phenomenon. It was first served at a place called Nick Tahou Hots, which trademarked the name. It’s basically a “disorganized” plate piled high with fried potatoes, baked beans, hot dogs, onions, mustard and a chili-like meat sauce.

“Originally, it was made with two Zweigle’s hot dogs,” Vacanti says. Vacanti believes the half-lb. footlong would do well in eateries like Nick Tahou Hots. In February, Vacanti organized a box drop of half-pounders to about 45 of such establishments.

“We delivered gift boxes with four half-pounders in it,” he says.

Inside the box, there was a list of potential nicknames – the “Belly Buster” and the “Bun Buster” among them – and a note that read, “Sure to be a hit with your customers.” Vacanti is confident the half-pounder will be.

“It will draw a reaction,” he says.

While foot-longs sell best in the summer, Sahlen’s business is strong throughout the year, Battistoni says.  Buffalo folks are big on summer grilling, and Ted’s extends the concept into fall and winter with its charcoal-broiling approach, which only benefits Sahlen’s. The locals get I-want-a-foot-long-in-January fever and head to Ted’s.

“Ted’s does a nice business in the winter,” Battistoni says. “The foot-long isn’t as seasonal for us because we have Ted’s business year-round.”

While the foot-long is a foodservice staple, processors haven’t given up on the retail segment. Koegel Meats, which also sells most of its foot-longs at foodservice through Dairy Queens and A&W Restaurants in Michigan, debuted the foot-long at retail about 15 years ago. The company first sold foot-longs year-round at retail, but sales weren’t very strong outside of the summer months. Now, foot-longs are only sold for four months during the spring and summer.

“People buy foot-longs for grilling out [during the warm months],” Koegel says. “Retailers aren’t interested in selling them during the fall and winter. They would rather devote that space to something else that sells better.”

One of Sahlen’s biggest retailers is Topp’s Supermarkets, one of the biggest grocers in western New York. Topps’ stocks Sahlen’s foot-longs from mid-May through mid-August. Several independent area grocers also stock them.  Sahlen’s has 70-percent market share of hot dogs in western New York, including against branded products. Hence, consumers trust the quality they’re getting with Sahlen’s foot-longs, Battistoni says.

Vacanti says he’s surprised more foot-longs aren’t sold at retail. He hopes his experience in channel development will help build the foot-long business at retail.

“I don’t have any background on why foot-longs aren’t as big as they are at retail,” he says. “It’s a viable retail product. There has to be a reason why more retailers don’t carry them.”

Vacanti is working with an independent retailer in Pennsylvania to sell Zweigle’s half-lb. foot-longs. The retailer is repacking a package of four half-pounders by placing two of them in a tray pack with fi lm overwrap and selling them at its deli.

“This is a good way to test it,” Vacanti says.

Koegel Meats uses its foodservice sales to spark its retail sales. The thought is if someone enjoys eating a foot-long at Dairy Queen, he or she may buy a pack at the supermarket for home grilling. In fact, Koegel Meats has placed signs in Dairy Queens and A&Ws to let them know what brand of hot dogs and foot-longs they’re eating.

“I think there’s definitely a carryover into the retail side of the business from this,” Koegel says.

No added cost

It doesn’t cost more to process foot-longs than regular hot dogs, processors say. Basically, it’s just a matter of pushing a few buttons on a portion-controlled stuffer. The emulsion is the same, and no extra equipment is needed. The only thing that needs to be changed is the packaging die.

“The linking devices have to be set up specifi cally for [foot-longs] in order to make them expediently,” Battistoni adds.

“It’s just changing from one program to the other,” Vacanti says, noting that in the case of Zweigle’s half-pounder, casings also have to be changed because the half-pounder has a larger diameter.

Additional expense could be incurred if natural casings are used on foot-longs because of shape differentiations, Battistoni notes.

“In our case, we make them with collagen casings, which is not only more effective from a size perspective, but it’s also more cost-effective,” he adds.

The audience
Who eats foot-longs? Men? Women? Children? Yes, yes and yes, but it’s probably mostly young men and kids. Vacanti says Zweigle’s targets 18-to 30-year-old males who go to bars and sporting events. “They see the foot-long on the menu, and they have to have it,” he says.

Koegel Meats hasn’t done any demographic studies, but Koegel says a lot of kids eat its foot-longs.

One thing is for sure: Nobody would eat a foot-long if it didn’t taste good. Even though the product is a gimmick, it still has to be palatable.

“Levi Strauss said it best when he said, ‘Quality never goes out of style,’ ” Battistoni says.
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