Dining on dogs

by Larry Aylward
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What do celebrities Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, Katie Couric, Jay Leno, Sugar Ray Leonard, Celine Dion, Jason Alexander and Tyra Banks have in common?

They’ve all eaten at Pink’s, arguably the most famous hot dog restaurant in the world. Pink’s, located in Hollywood, packs ‘em in, especially on weekends when lines typically stretch outside the front door. The iconic eatery sells about 2,000 hot dogs a day.

And to think Pink’s got its start in the Depression era as a result of a man and his wife just looking for work. Paul and Betty Pink started their hot dog business – in the form of a large-wheeled pushcart – in 1939 after borrowing $50 to purchase it. Chili dogs – made with oversized hot dogs, mustard, onions and thick chili on a warm bun – sold for a dime and quickly gained a cult-like following.

In 1941, the Pinks received a loan to purchase the property they were renting for the pushcart for $4,000. Five years later, the pushcart morphed into a hot dog stand, which is still in use today. Pink’s offers 25 varieties of hot dogs. It offers 7- and 9-inch all-beef dogs as well as turkey and veggie dogs. The menu offers a myriad of toppings, but Pink’s is famous for its chili dog.

“Our goal is to satisfy as many tastes as possible,” says Richard Pink, who took over the business from his parents and operates it with his wife, Gloria. “We try to create a variety so people don’t get bored with the menu. We probably come up with a new hot dog variety once a month.”

Foodservice fanatics
Pink’s isn’t the only hot dog and sausage eatery in America that has displayed amazing staying power over the years. While hot dog and sausage restaurants may not dot the foodservice landscape like hamburger joints, many have earned enviable loyalties from a growing customer base.

There are chains, such as Wienerschnitzel, a West Coast favorite with more than 300 outlets; Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom, a Southern California-based specialty sausage maker; and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, which has 267 units throughout the country. There’s also a smorgasbord of independent operators who run one or a handful of restaurants in cities and towns across the country, including Dan’s Dogs in Medina, Ohio, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.

All these hot dog and sausage operations have stories to share about how they’ve succeeded in the world of fast food that are as interesting as their fare.

Kingdom comes
Jody Maroni began hawking hot dogs with “weird and crazy combos” from behind a hot dog cart on the Venice Beach, Calif., boardwalk in 1979. Today, Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdoms are located in airports, ballparks, convention centers, boardwalks and casinos throughout California and as far east as St. Louis. The chain sells a variety of specialty sausage, from Smoked Chicken Mole to Toulouse Garlic, a pork variety.

Maroni might’ve received a few crazy looks in the 1970s when he was selling such sausage, but not many.

“Venice Beach has an aspect that’s like Mardi Gras,” Maroni says of the Southern California beach. “[The sausage] went over well. At that time, flavored sausage was absolutely unique. It wasn’t like every traditional sausagemaker made a line of flavored-chicken sausage like they do today.”

Maroni admits his gourmet sausage wouldn’t have gone over well in a more conservative city. But combined with the energy he brought to street-food vending, of which there was little at the time, Maroni’s business had all the ingredients needed for success. He was introducing gourmet sausage at a time when the sausage industry wasn’t very forward thinking.

“There was nothing innovative about [the sausage business] because it was suppose to be a traditional art and not supposed to change,” Maroni says.

Having been in the business for nearly 35 years, there are several secrets for his success, luck and perseverance being two of them.

“Or maybe it’s obsession – having an idea and sticking with it despite what the world tells you,” says Maroni.

Standing out
John Galardi, the founder of Wienerschnitzel, had an idea and stuck with it. He began Wienerschitzel in 1961 in Wilmington, Calif., and is considered a pioneer in fast-food circles, says Tom Amberger, Wienerschnitzel’s vice president of marketing.

The first Wienerschitzel outlets featured an A-frame design, which distinguished them from other fastfood eateries.
Wienerschnitzel’s secret to success and longevity goes back to having a niche role in the QSR segment, Amberger says. “You need that kind of niche to be around for 50 years,” he adds.

Wienerschnitzel, which is based in Irvine, Calif., has also adopted a “nonconforming” approach to its business, Amberger says.

“We kind of zig when others zag,” he says. “That has been the secret of our success. We’re the world’s largest hot dog chain; we serve more than 120 million hot dogs a year. We’re a big fish in small pond. We’re the alternative experience.”

Dandy dogs
In Medina, Ohio, Dan’s Dogs will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Steve and Kay Chylik have owned the restaurant for about 18 years and contribute a number of factors to their staying power. The husband-wife team purchased the restaurant from a businessman who named it after himself. One reason for their success is they didn’t change the restaurant’s name, which had gained a following. The previous owner advertised and marketed heavily and Dan’s Dogs was well known as a place to eat hot dogs, not a place to bring dogs for training or grooming.

The Chyliks previously worked in the bar business, so they knew that long hours and dedication were required to make such an operation successful.

“We didn’t know much about the hot dog business,” Dan Chylik says. “We were raw. But you don’t have to listen to people while they sit there all day and tell you their problems. This is like vacation compared to the bar business.”
The Chylik’s business is in a solid location – just west of the town square in the city that’s the county seat. Hence, Dan’s Dogs gets a lot of lunchtime business from the nearby courthouse as well as other county office business.

“People know they’re only going to drop $5 or $6 for lunch,” Chylik says. “And they’re in and out of here in 30 minutes.” Dan’s Dogs uses an all-beef hot dog made by Farmland Foods.

Standing out
Steve Chylik points to his round stomach when asked how he comes up with the ideas for the “Dogs Worth Barking About” section on Dan’s Dogs’ menu. Chylik enjoys the testing phase of his operation.

How else can one explain some of the hot dogs on Dan’s Dogs’ menu? There’s the Shaggy Dog, topped with mustard and sauerkraut, and the Moon Doggie, featuring sauteed green peppers, onions and mozzarella cheese, among the 40 varieties. Chylik and others in the foodservice end of the hot dog and sausage industry realize that a little creativity will get you everywhere.

Richard and Gloria Pink know that well. Pink’s offers the Three Dog Night, featuring three hot dogs wrapped in a tortilla with three slices of cheese and bacon, chili and onions. And there’s the Ozzy Spicy Dog, a spicy Polish dog with nacho cheese, American cheese, grilled onions, guacamole and chopped tomatoes.

Maroni has achieved success and a loyal following thanks to products like his Cubana Chicken Sausage, a sweet and smoky sausage that contains plantains and garlic. Maroni’s personal favorite is his Smoked Chicken Mole, a spicy sausage featuring peanuts, peppers and chocolate.

“A little imagination seems to go a long way in the meat business,” Maroni says, adding that he believes his recipes, including French, Italian and Latin-American concoctions, are the key to his success.

Pink points out that what’s on a hot dog needs to appear enticing as well.

“Visually, we want all the hot dogs to look very interesting,” Pink says.

Of course, everyone agrees that creativity will only get you so far. The product – and the price, in many cases – needs to be top shelf.

“If we were serving a bad product, people aren’t going to come there, no matter how much you promote it,” Pink says.
“We’re consistent,” Chylik says of Dan’s Dogs. “You’ll get the same thing you got here five years ago.”

The chili dog is the staple product at Wienerschnitzel’s, which also thrives on consistency. The beanless chili is prepared daily from a proprietary recipe that’s protected in a vault. “We have a unique product, and we’re an alternative quick-service restaurant,” Amberger says. “You can’t find our product at very many other places. When people get hungry for a hot dog, especially a chili dog, Wienerschnitzel is the place to go.”

The company’s original hot dog is a combination of beef, pork and chicken. It also offers an all-beef Angus dog. Denver-based Goldstar Sausage is Wienerschnitzel’s supplier.

Wienerschnitzel is also price-friendly, with the price of a hot dog at $1.35. Wienerschnitzel also offers coupons through direct mail, which has proved successful.

“Those things are keeping our customer counts up and people coming into our stores,” Amberger says.

Paying off
The hot dog and sausage eateries have held up well during these tough economic times. Pink’s business held steady during the recession. Business was up about 2 percent in 2009 compared to 6 percent in previous years. “The lines were still long, but people were ordering less,” Pink says. “But business began getting back to normal earlier this year. We’re up 6 to 8 percent in sales [through June.]” Dan’s Dog’s is having a record year in sales. “Last year was the best year we’ve had,” Chylik says. “And this year we’re blowing away those numbers.” “People see hot dogs as a cheap food,” Maroni says. “And they eat comfort food during [tough economic times].” Wienerschnitzel is a privately held company, and Amberger wouldn’t reveal annual sales. “Like everyone else in quick-service restaurants, you’re ahead of the game if you can stay even with sales from the previous year,” Amberger says, noting that Wienerschnitzel is doing just that.

Staying power: Part 2
Tomorrow is a new challenge, and successful hot dog foodservice operators realize they can’t sit still if they want to continue their success.

Pink’s is on the move. About 10 years ago, the eatery sought to expand in Southern California, but not at the expense of sacrificing quality. The company also wanted to find other operators to run any new outlets.

So Pink’s carefully expanded into movie theaters with more than 15 screens, as well as Universal Studios and Knotsberry Farm in Los Angeles. Pink’s recently opened a hot dog stand at Los Angeles International airport.

Pink’s may continue to license its products to amusement parks and casinos, places where a lot of people go and the product can stand out. But will probably never expand to malls and shopping centers.

“Keeping our specialness is a very important part of our brand,” Richard Pink says.

Wienerschnitzel plans to play to its strengths – hot dogs and chili – to maintain future success, Amberger says.
“One of the toughest things to stay focused on is what you do best,” he adds.

Wienerschnitzel has 350 restaurants located primarily in the West, but it would consider opening restaurants in the East. Wienerschnitzel recently opened its first mall kiosk and may expand that concept. “We’re always looking to grow the brand,” Amberger says.

So is Maroni, who says he’s tried his products in a “gazillion different places” and there’s “a gazillion different places I can still try them.”

Maroni is also looking for new avenues to expand his business including food trucks, which are the latest phenomenon in Los Angeles.

Dan’s Dogs attracts customers not only from the small town where it’s located, but also from nearby cities such as Cleveland and Akron, which are both about 25 miles away. Dan’s Dogs has received its share of media attention, which has helped it draw patrons. But the bottom line to success, Chylik says, is serving creations that people wouldn’t even think of serving at home.

Larry Aylward is a free-lance writer from Cleveland.

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