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Feature Fri Jun 25 2010
Let's get straight to the facts: a Chicago hot dog isn't a Chicago hot dog without a Vienna Beef sausage in the middle. I've gone to quite a few hot dog places since moving to Chicago in 2005 and although there are those rare exceptions Vienna Beef hot dogs have been and will be my dog of choice. From that satisfying snap on the first bite to that rich beefy taste all the way through, it's hard to find a sausage that better compliments the condiments that go on a Chicago-style or Depression-style hot dog. But what makes Vienna Beef the quintessential hot dog for the majority of Chicago hot dog stands? Why has this company been a successful business since the heyday of Chicago's meat packing industry? And why does it continue to succeed amidst a dismal economy and dozens of cheap hot dog options? Lots of questions, and only one place to get the answers -- the Vienna Beef Factory on Damen and Fullerton.
The Vienna Beef sausage made its official debut in 1893 at the Columbia World's Fair. Austrian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Landany flocked to Chicago as many immigrants and families did to be a part of the historic World's Fair. The two men brought their recipe for sausages and started a food stand at the fair, serving up a Vienna Chicago style hot dog. After the fair Reichel and Landany set up shop on the near West Side of Chicago, at 417 Halsted, to produce hot dogs and kosher cuts. And you can say the rest is history.
I had the privilege of touring the factory with Tom Pierce and Bob Swartz. Tom and Bob both started at Vienna Beef in the '70s and have worked their way from the ground up to the positions they are in today. Bob holds a senior vice president position at Vienna Beef and is author of the book Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog, where Tom has worked his way up to be the director of customer service. Through these two I saw how Vienna Beef can be a successful company without sacrificing customer service and product pride. I also got the rare opportunity to walk through Vienna Beef's plant with filmmaker Jennifer Lacey to observe the daily operations of the factory. There's the old joke that once you see how sausage is made, you'll never want to eat one again. I didn't find this to be true at Vienna. Right before we walk through the doors into the main floor, Tom turned to me and asked if I had ever seen how sausage was made. I politely shook my head no. "It's like making a cake," he said. Puzzled, I went into the factory to see for myself. In many ways Tom was right. The way the company executes every step in the factory is precise, clean, and quick. Since Vienna Beef has never been a slaughterhouse there wasn't the stereotypical floor covered in blood. Even watching the meat being stuffed into the casing was more comical than grotesque.
Throughout the 115 years of business Vienna Beef has of course taken some hard hits. In 2008 the company got slapped with a lawsuit about its "100% pure beef" claim after consumers found out that the brand uses sheep or hog casing for its hot dogs. Where the company never claimed that their hot dogs were Kosher, they still had to take down any old signs with the pure beef claim and settle for $300,000. Then there are the recent claims that hot dogs cause cancer, which made its Chicago statement with a billboard close to Wrigley Field. It may not be a good time for encased meats, but Vienna Beef still stands strong. No matter what decade it is the company works by the same standards and the same ethics. Tom and Bob genuinely love their jobs after working at the company for almost 40 years. That says a lot. This above all reasons is why Vienna Beef stands strong. It's a company that cares about its employees and doesn't hold anyone above anyone else. No person's job is more important than the other.
When the Great Depression hit, Vienna Beef gave out of work men a stand, some hot dogs, and condiments and put them to work selling hot dogs for a nickel in their community. When food was scarce and money was too, a community could easily go to their neighborhood hot dog cart and get a cheap, delicious meal that would fill the bellies of their family. The Vienna Beef hot dog became a reliable symbol to Chicago, something families could thank for the food on the table and the money in their pockets. In some ways Vienna Beef still continues this tradition with their Hot Dog University. Mark Reitman started the program in 2006 in Michigan, teaching prospective hot dog stand owners the proper way to start and run a hot dog business. In 2009 Vienna Beef brought on Reitman to start the Hot Dog University program in Chicago and now the two run a successful school that teaches everything from getting the proper license to start a restaurant to building a unique and interesting menu. Vienna Beef is a company that wants its product to look good, so it trains restaurateurs how to present it in the right manner. This above all makes it the choice of many Chicago hot dog stands. It's a company instilled in the community. It's an icon and a brand that will drive consumers to your restaurant, not matter what neighborhood or street corner. It's one thing to have a great product. It's another thing to have a great product backed by a company that pays such attention to its vendors.
It's this extra step, this care and concern for their product that makes Vienna Beef a name in Chicago. As we take a break from the tour to sample today's products in taste testing room, Tom describes how Vienna Beef is today. We all know the economy is in the pits. A lot of companies have found ways to cut corners, whether it's outsourcing its jobs to overseas or buying cheaper materials to make their product. CEO of Vienna Beef Jim Bodman refuses to cut corners. He still buys Midwest-raised and premium fed beef, still hand labels his product instead of printing the label on the packaging, still uses a genuine smokehouse instead of synthetic "smoke flavoring" that other companies use. Tom even tells me about a situation where a hot dog stand owner ran out of relish and one of Vienna Beef's employees drove a tub of relish to the client. Is it all cost effective? No. Does it make for a better product? A thousand times yes. I don't know if any of you have had a generic hot dog recently, but they cannot compare. These little things, this small perhaps stubborn way of doing things makes a Vienna Beef hot dog stand out. You literally can taste the difference. That's why they are and probably will be Chicago's number one hot dog. They taste good, they're cheap, and it's a name and brand that restaurateurs and consumers can trust. Now if you excuse me, I really really need a hot dog.