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Hold the Ketchup: A Study of Chicago-style Hotdogs

The quintessential Chicago hot dog shack is well… everywhere. With over a thousand establishments in the Chicagoland area, you can’t throw a rock without hitting one. So what about these greasy huts is so special that every Chicagoan insists on having one in walking distance? Is it our appetite for beef and mustard, nostalgia, a sadomasochistic relationship with our digestive tracts? Or is it simply the low price and convenience that has carried hot dogs into the information age?

Science Retail decided it was worthy of an investigation. We visited The Weiner’s Circle, Yango’s Grill and the Red Hot Ranch to take an in-depth look at their recipes, visitor experience and operations. Here is what we ate, what we saw, and what we both agreed makes Chicago Hot Dog places so darn special.

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Everything on it?

Many classic spots have come and gone since the dawn of the dawg days (roughly 1920’s). But a select few often top the list of “best Chicago hot dogs”. Superdawg, Devil Dawgs, Hot Doug’s (RIP), Gene & Jude’s, The Weiner’s Circle, Fatso’s Last Stand, Portillo’s, Felony Franks (also RIP), just to name a few.

Most of us know what the classic dog includes: an all-beef dog (exclusively either Vienna Beef or Red-Hots) boiled in water and wrapped in a poppy seed bun, topped with your usual white onions, tomato, pickle, sport pepper, celery salt, neon green relish and of course, classic yellow mustard, plus a big ol’ pile of greasy, salty fries. Everyone’s got their own spin on it: Fatso’s chars their dogs over an open flame, Red Hot Ranch and Gene and Judes classically load their fries on top. But regardless of how it’s done, you can almost always count on any combination satisfying that street food craving. As long as they have most of the above ingredients (and don’t have ketchup!) they all qualify as a “Chicago Hot Dog”.

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“How can I help you?”

Everyone knows what you’re waiting in line for. That greasy, delicious, piece of meat. You’re not there to be served a plate of cheerful smiles. Places like Gene & Jude’s and the Weiner Circle basically live by the motto of eat your food and GTFO. Gene & Jude’s flaunting the signage: “NO SEATS NO KETCHUP NO PRETENSE NO NONSENSE”. Red Hot Ranch on Western Ave is another no-seats, no funny business establishment... unless you’re willing to brave the cold and grab a bench outside.

In our “research”, we knew we had to visit The Wiener Circle, another establishment famously known as Chicago’s most foul mouthed restaurant, where you can almost expect a loud insult whirled at your face. Just beating the lunch rush at approximately 11:45am we ordered two dogs with everything, a basket of fries (salted) and two bottled waters. Maybe it was an early morning coincidence, but we manage to make it through the ordering process with only a bit of criticism by the cashier about their current point-of-sale (see more below!). And lucky for us, they do offer seats and ketchup at The Weiner Circle.

On the flip side, there’s Yangos, a Lakeview staple for at least 30 years, the owner is still behind the counter and greets all comers with “What can I get you MY FRIEND?” Popular for their 2-cheeseburgers-for-2-dollars deal (which is now about $6.50), Yango’s still serves a classic Chicago-style hot dog, nested neatly in a red plastic basket with thin-cut fries and topped with a green pickle that could be described as neon-colored. Here we felt a little more cozy grabbing a booth in a classic diner-like setting.

Where else in the food and beverage industry can you treat customers with so much indifference, or outright hostility?  Whether it’s authentically rude or all an act, it’s all part of the experience… an experience you can expect to pay anywhere between $7-$10/person.

CASH ONLY

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In anticipation for our mini hot dog tour, we took out some cash expecting that would be the preferred, if not only, method at payment. At The Weiner Circle we were pleasantly surprised to find they are using Toast (a fairly common restaurant POS system). Much to our surprise, we find out they’ve had it nearly 3 years! Surely the outspoken staff members would have a strong opinion on it. Surprisingly, they seemed alright with the new tech, but maybe a little ticked off by the surplus of cables.

It would be easy to assume that Yango’s is cash-only, but we spied a Verifone credit card terminal on the rear counter.  We didn’t have the heart to use it though, as Yango’s low prices don’t leave a lot of room for a 3.5% or so processing fee. Two hot dogs (served with fries) and two sodas set us back $14.  Both Yango and his staff member thanked us loudly when we dropped $2 into their tip bucket.

Most dog hog stands seem to have a blurry policy of cash only, begrudgingly taking cash, or maybe enforcing a “$5 Credit Card Minimum”. Why is it that many hot dog spots are still cash only in an age when Square is an affordable option with a practically DIY set up? Maybe it’s just part of hot dog history. Maybe it’s for the sweet opportunity to tell some poor yuppie “you’re outta luck.” Or maybe a cash-only business looks better on paper (wink wink nudge nudge.)

When a restaurant like Yango’s (pictures on the wall and a TV seem to upgrade this place from “stand” to “restaurant”) manages a level of coziness and warmth, the experiential advantage negates the need for heavy technology spending.  We didn’t look for captive-portal wifi and none of the other patrons seemed to need it either. With prices a solid 13% beneath their nearest competitor (the legendary Wiener’s Circle), it’s hard to see how technology spending would fit in the budget.  HOWEVER, we visited on a chilly, dreary Wednesday at 12:30. One might otherwise expect local retail employees to be searching for a cheap basket of Hump-day comfort food.

Could bluetooth beacons or captive-portal wifi notifications encourage some of those Monday or Thursday lunch customers to drop back in on a slow Wednesday for a free order of fries, or maybe that class 2-cheeseburger-for-$2 deal, just to fill the seats?  We’ll keep you posted, MY FRIEND!

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