Given the amount of frankfurters consumed in this country and their status as a beloved foodstuff, they may be even more All-American than apple pie.

According to statistics from the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, more than 730 million hot dog packages are sold in supermarkets and an additional 21 million-plus are sold in major league ballparks each year, and that doesn’t count the millions more purchased at club stores, c-stores, restaurants and pushcarts. Although much of the appeal of this popular food product stems from its familiarity in taste, appearance and affordability, not all hot dogs are created equal, from batter recipes to casings to packaging.

Compared to other types of foods, and even other processed meats and sausages, hot dogs are not packaged with a lot of 21st Century bells and whistles. One doesn’t see a lot of zipper pulls, as with grab-and-go deli meats, or artisan-crafted links set in black trays and high-impact films, like some sausage varieties.

Consumers, it seems, aren’t necessarily looking for anything splashy with the humble frankfurter. “When people are buying hot dogs, there is an understanding that it’s a hot dog,” points out Jerry Hirsh, director of marketing communications for Kansas City, Mo-based Multivac Inc., adding that by definition and expectation, hot dogs are an economical food.

That point is underscored at the meat case, where many hot dogs are still merchandised in the same type of packages that has served the industry well over the past few decades. While packaging innovations within the hotdog segment tend to be more subtle and gradual, there are examples of manufacturers and packaging material and equipment suppliers who are thinking outside the box – or as the case may be, the bag.

For instance, as the organic and natural segment within the hot-dog category continues to grow, factors like sustainability and effective on-package messaging are driving some packaging changes. One example comes from Applegate Farms, Bridgewater, NJ, which switched to a new flat pack this past September with seven, instead of the traditional eight hot dogs.
Linda Boardman, the company’s president, says the new package offers several benefits. “We took a great deal of time and effort to work on our design to make it reflect the personality of the brand,” she explains.

One of the biggest priorities, she notes, was to convey the child-friendliness of the product to parents and caregivers through bold graphics, including a smiling hot-dog character. “We wanted our new packaging to make the organic message stand out and to differentiate ourselves,” Boardman says.

In addition to better communicating the Applegate Farms brand to shoppers, the new format allows retailers to fit more products in the case and keep more SKUs in stock. “We were able to reduce the size, so there is less waste in terms of shipping,” she adds. As for the reduction in quantity, the package still weighs 12 ozs., but the weight is distributed among seven larger hot dogs instead of eight smaller ones, Boardman says.

In addition to the ever-building buzz around organic and natural products and sustainable/Earthfriendly packaging, the hot-dog category continues to be impacted by ongoing consumer interest in convenience, both from a preparation and storage standpoint. Interest in recloseability led to the development and wider use of press-to-close packaging, for example.

Trial and error
A few years ago, consumers looking for convenient, single-use applications for hot dogs spurred the Madison, Wis.-based Oscar Mayer brand to create a package with individually-wrapped links. However, according to Oscar Mayer spokeswoman Sydney Lindner, the line of Fast Franks is no longer available. “While there was a loyal following, it was not enough to sustain production,” she explains, adding that Oscar Mayer did recently launch a new line of natural frankfurters called Selects, but those items are sold in standard hot-dog packaging.

Still, other variable-quantity packages of hot dogs are available in the general marketplace, for both foodservice and retail. For example, Nathan’s Famous larger premium hot dogs (billed for those with bigger appetites) are sold in a twinpack in certain markets, while other Nathan’s Famous hot dogs are merchandised in special club-store packaging. “They do very well in club stores and that is our strategy. The club stores want something different, usually a bigger pack,” says Janet Sweeney, director of marketing for Special Food Group, Lombard, Ill., which produces and markets lines of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs.

Other retail channels outside conventional supermarkets also are a destination for hot-dog packages that are a bit different from their mainstream grocery counterparts. Multivac’s Hirsh, says stores that carry high-end processed meats, including what one would consider more upscale hot dogs, might find distinctive hot-dog packaging appealing for their customers.
“A form-shrink package is different and it’s a more premium look because it really lets you showcase the product. You typically don’t see hot dogs in a shrink pack,” he remarks, noting because a thermoformer is used, a more custom-shaped cut and automated process are possible.

“It allows for a different look, higher volume, lower cost and less waste.”

On the topic of higher volume and lower cost, Hirsh points out that highspeed hot dog packaging machines, such as those with thermoform-fillseal technology like Multivac’s, can process up to 200 single-layer packs of skinless franks a minute. As processors look to capitalize on demand for such inexpensive, popular and convenient products as hot dogs, higher-volume equipment will likely remain on the radar of manufacturers.

As for the future of hot-dog packaging, changes will likely continue to be convenience-driven and focused on sustainability and eco-friendliness using high-impact, brand-centric graphics.

Which came first: the hot dog or the bun?
It’s an age-old question that still surfaces, in jokes, customer-service inquiries and even on Web sites and consumer chat rooms: Why are hot dogs generally sold in packages of 10, while buns are sold in packages of eight?

The answer: Hot dog companies have long preferred to sell one lb. of products at a time, while bakers have long used pans that accommodate eight buns. Even with today’s pickier-than-ever consumers, it doesn’t seem like an even ratio will be coming to the marketplace anytime soon.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.