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Hot Dog University serves up frank secrets

Selling hot dogs.

Must be the easiest job in the world, right?

You take a hot dog, you slap it in a bun. If the customer wants mustard, you squirt on mustard. You hand the hot dog in wax paper to the customer. You take the money.

Bing bang boom. What’s the big deal? What’s there to learn?

That was my thinking when I heard that Vienna Beef runs “Hot Dog University” out of its plant at 2501 N. Damen — a two-day, $695 course to teach people how to sell hot dogs.

What does it teach? How to boil water?

I sign up, dubious, telling myself, I don’t have to stay for the whole two days; if it gets dull, I can bail out after a few hours. Slip away to use the restroom and never come back.

It doesn’t get dull; I pay close attention, the entire two days, get my diploma, and only wish this article could be long enough to convey the freewheeling mix of streetwise economics, consumer psychology, ethnic sociology, food service history that Mark Reitman — his business card reads “PHD (Professor of Hot Dogs)” — serves steaming out of his hot dog cart of wisdom over two eight-hour days.

All delivered in a manner of utter seriousness, part Army colonel briefing his troops on what to expect after they hit the beach, part junior high school health teacher walking his seventh-grade boys through the facts of life.

Take a matter as simple as potato chips.

Not so simple.

“All I sold off my cart were hot dogs and drinks — I didn’t sell chips. But I’m going to talk about chips, potato chips with hot dog carts,” Reitman tells his six students, minutes after class has begun, while he is still outlining his “philosophy of hot dogs.”

“See here in Chicago, chips don’t go with hot dogs. If you go into a hot dog stand, you get fries with a hot dog. If you grew up in Chicago the only time you had chips with a hot dog were if you are outside at a picnic on a white paper plate, OK?”

Those words “picnic” and “white paper plate” are infused with a bewildered disgust.

“Hot dogs and chips are something that you serve at home. But now, chips are very, very important on a hot dog cart, because you want to use those putting together what some of the fast food places have called a ‘Value Meal.’ You’re not going to make money on the chips, but by putting chips with a drink and the dog you get them to buy a drink, which they normally wouldn’t buy, so you make a couple cents on the chips, you make 75 on the drink, you make your money on your hot dogs.”

In other words, sell a hot dog for $3, a drink for $1.60, and chips for .50 and you’ll sell a lot of $3 hot dogs. But offer a $5 lunch special of the three, and people will clamor for that and you’ll make more money, and making money is what selling hot dogs is about.

To that end, we learn about hot dogs, both skinless and natural casing. We slip into white lab coats and hair nets and tour the steamy, chilly, clangorous Vienna Beef plant, with whining power saws and chirping forklifts, starting where workers use hooks to turn big sides of beef as they trim off strips of fat.

“These trimmings are going into hot dogs immediately,” says Reitman.

Extra fat is essential because, contrary to expectations, these hot dogs aren’t made from cows — they’re made from bullmeat, a leaner flesh that requires extra fat.

By the time we repair to a test kitchen mid-morning to sample hot dogs and Polish slices on toothpicks, we all know each other and our stories. A pair of brothers-in-law planning a cart across from the entrance to the Milwaukee Zoo. A former Allstate executive, let go after 25 years, opening a stand in Kenosha. A cop from Greenville, South Carolina, an engineer from West Virginia.

After lunch at Vienna Beef’s substantial public cafeteria, patronized by everyone from truck drivers making deliveries to company owner Jim Bodman, we talk condiments.

“If you plan on making money, it’s got to be busy, and you can’t dress a hot dog,” Reitman says. “It just doesn’t work. Let people dress their own dogs.”

Not that this is without risk, particularly if you are offering a Chicago-style hot dog, with mustard, onions, relish, celery salt, sport peppers, and that profit killer, tomatoes.

“I never served tomatoes,” Reitman says. “You get somebody who loves them, they can use $2 worth. They’re there making a salad out of my hot dog.”

Reitman of course analyzes the eternal ketchup conundrum.

“Two out of three people” in Wisconsin put ketchup on hot dogs, says Reitman, who ran a stand in our neighbor to the North before beginning Hot Dog U. in 2006.

As opposed to Chicago, “where it was blasphemous if you put ketchup on a hot dog.”

“I’ll give you my feeling on that,” he says. “Always put yourself in your customers shoes. It’s not what you want. It’s what your customers want. People here at Vienna Beef would probably rip out my tongue if I said it’s OK to put ketchup on your hot dog stand.”

Because, he says, ketchup throws off the subtle zeitgeist of the Chicago-style dog.

“We add corn syrup to the hot dog, it’s a sweetener,” he said. “So it begins by getting the sweetness from corn syrup. Then that neon green relish, one of the first ingredients on that neon green relish is sugar. Then your tomato which is not a vegetable, it’s a fruit, so you have that sugar in there. The addition of ketchup to Chicago-style hot dog exacerbates the amount of sugar and sweetness in it.

“My philosophy is this: Whatever a customer wants he should be able to dress his dog. We have Hispanic customers, they request mayonnaise. You ever have mayonnaise on a hot dog?”

And off we go on mayonnaise, spiced with lime and used in Tijuana Bacon Dogs and Sonoran Mexican Dogs. You need to know what your customers want and have it there — Grape Crush if you’re on the West Side, mandarin orange Jarritos soda in Kenosha. You won’t make money selling it, he says, because it’s expensive, but some people will like you just seeing it on top of your cart.

The next day it gets really interesting.

We meet at 8 a.m. in the cavernous expanse of Restaurant Depot on Division, an enormous facility — merchandise is packed in pallets going up 40 feet — where you can buy anything from an enormous industrial range to an oven mitt to tongs, which are complex.

“In the world of tongs, there are good tongs and bad tongs,” says Reitman. He brandishes a $1.91 spring loaded tong. “This over here is a very bad tong. It’s like a razor blade — very easy to nip your finger.”

He picks up an $8 pair of tongs. “Spend the extra money. And buy two, because you’re going to drop it in the hot water, eventually, and how are going to get it out?”

Aisle by aisle we go through the depot, talking cups — offer one size (“Give people less choice,” he says) — talking straws, onions, ice cream. Styrofoam hot dog containers are not Chicago — wax paper is, because one costs up to a nickel, and one costs a fraction of a cent and both “end up in the garbage.”

Back at Vienna Beef, we roll out Reitman’s hot dog cart, fire up the burners, fill the water trays, and practice making ourselves hot dogs for lunch in a steady snow. Then we’re behind the counter at the Vienna Beef cafeteria, taking orders from real customers as they reel off what they want on their dogs.

“Are you ready to open a hot dog stand now?” a classmate asks me.

“I’m ready to go back to the office and kiss the floor,” I answer. “This is work.”

But work that pays off, or can. A few weeks later, I’m sitting in what could be considered the opposite of a hot dog stand — the plush, white-table cloth elegance of Petterino’s, having lunch with Leo Melamed, the man who invented financial futures trading, the multi-millionaire chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We discuss politics, poetry, Poland, but the subject that really animates him is hot dogs.

“Freddy’s Hot Dogs!” he enthuses. “I was a hot dog man!” And we’re off on tales of after-hours pinochle and how the grease smell lingers on your clothes. A titan of Chicago business. You gotta start somewhere.

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