If the folks at the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council had their way, you'd already know that July is National Hot Dog Month and July 24 is National Hot Dog Day.
If Coe D. Meyer had his way, every day would be a hot-dog day. From his office in Morrison, Meyer is launching a bid to become the country's only nationwide hot-dog vendor. By placing his "Woody's Chicago Style" hot-dog carts at home-improvement centers and on sidewalks across America, he plans to bring the pleasures of frankfurter flesh to the walking hungry.
For the people who own and run them, Woody's carts deliver something else: financial independence. "I've got air-traffic controllers, blood technicians, registered nurses, contractors, flight attendants," Meyer says of his franchisees. "We've got twenty stands going in the Seattle area, and we're picking up ex-Boeing executives. They're tired of looking over their shoulders, tired of being laid off.
Not about a restaurant
"There are two things people want to own in their life," Meyer continues. "A bar and a hot-dog stand." Meyer had both in 1984, when he owned the B Lift Pub at Copper Mountain and set up a hot-dog cart to boost the bar's income. The response to his dogs was overwhelming and inspired him to leave the bar business for the weiner wars. Affirms Meyer: "Everybody looks at a guy who is selling hot dogs and thinks, 'Now, there's a guy that's got it made.'"
Following this all-beef epiphany, Meyer moved to Hawaii to launch a hot-dog venture on the beaches there. That culture proved less dog-friendly, so by 1990, he shifted from selling hot dogs to selling hot-dog stands. He wangled a contract to set up in the lobbies of Eagle Hardware stores in Hawaii and a few West Coast states; his empire expanded when Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse bought out Eagle, and he returned to Colorado. Today Meyer has 55 carts in eleven western states, with more states and staff on the way.
His office will soon be a training camp for future frankfurter moguls. Training, Meyer says, is the key to his country-conquering concept. Millions of Americans refuse to eat sidewalk hot dogs because so many carts -- and their operators -- lack curb and culinary appeal. A Woody's cart, on the other hand, is run by a well-groomed, uniformed staffer who "speaks fluent English, can communicate well and make proper change," Meyer says.
"In a lot of areas," he adds, "the day of the independent hot-dog guy with the Grateful Dead T-shirt on and a cigarette in one hand is rapidly diminishing, because companies like mine are offering an alternative." That sounds like the corporatization of a quirky American standard -- and that's exactly what Meyer's going for. "You don't go to McDonald's because they offer a great hamburger," Meyer says. "You go there because it's safe, it's clean, and you know exactly what you're going to get."
A Woody's dog starts with a weiner from Vienna Beef, a legendary brand in Chicago. (The company has been in business for over a hundred years and works under USDA meat stamp number "1.") Loyalty to the Vienna dog, according to Vienna's Chuck Whitesell, stems largely from the fact that it's made of meat from uncastrated bulls. "It's very rich and very dense," he says. "It almost looks purple." That manly meat is blended with tender trimmings from the brisket and belly sections used to make Vienna Beef's pastrami. The combination makes for a dog with balls, one that holds up under cooking and delivers the distinct "snap" that Chicagoans crave. The hot dogs are also naturally smoked over hickory, Whitesell says, instead of being dosed with the smoke flavorings used by Oscar Mayer and Ball Park.
For the past four years, Jordan Little has served up Woody's dogs from a permanent cart in the lobby of the Lowe's at 5405 Wadsworth Bypass in Arvada. "Everybody eats hot dogs," Little says. "It's like pizza and sex -- even when they're bad, they're still kinda good. And it's something that, when you eat them out, they're better than when you try and cook them at home."
His purebred dogs are condiment-heavy creations unlike any homemade dog, franks that showcase the more-is-best philosophy of the Chi-town standard. Each starts with a Vienna on a steamed poppyseed bun that may then be graced with "green" (an iridescent relish that nearly glows), minced white onions, "sport peppers" (pickled serranos), a slab of kosher dill pickle, a wedge of tomato, even a slice of cucumber -- "That's called 'draggin' it through the garden,'" Little says of the toppings process -- before finishing things off with yellow mustard. "If you're going for ketchup, don't let me see it," Little warns.
The result is doggone good. With each bite, your mouth moves through a mush of bun, a punch of peppers and a tangy blend of relish, pickle and onion. Those thrills meld with mustard before your teeth sink into the salty goodness of the dog itself for a total blue-collar taste sensation. (Some Woody's carts, including Little's, also serve a coriander-laced bratwurst and a cayenne-spiked Fire Dog along with snacks, sodas and coffee.)
This is mobile food for the masses. "Hot dogs, chips and perplexing questions answered -- that's how I see this job," Little says. "If you're a bit of a philosopher, if you like talking to people, it's a lot of fun. It's like owning a bar without the responsibilities of babysitting the drunks."
According to Meyer, an average Woody's cart brings in an average of $150,000 a year; a cart's pre-tax profit is about 50 percent. Operators make "somewhere in the area of $50,000 to $75,000 for running a hot-dog cart," Meyer says. "I've got guys that do a whole lot more." An operator in Colorado Springs, for example, will gross close to $300,000 this year. Cart owners typically pay back their $35,000 to $45,000 initial investment in their first year.
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Little says his annual sales are in line with Meyer's average, but making those sales requires putting in a lot of hours with little vacation time. Still, the gig brings in enough money that his wife can stay home with their child and tend to his Woody's books. "I'm pulling down decent money," he says. "With a couple years of college, I wasn't going to get a good job, so I had to make my own job. It was nice to find this."
And it was nice to be in a position to provide the opportunity, according to Meyer, who's watched dogged determination pay off. "Hot dogs are associated with fun, with good times," he says. "We're doing sausage the way it's supposed to be done.
'I've had so much fun watching all these Internet people go up the wire and come back down again," he adds. "But my guys go to work every day and stand there for eight hours, with no air-conditioned rooms or pool tables. They're looking for a way to make the mortgage payment, put in eight hours a day and live happily ever after. And that's pretty much what we offer."
That, and dogs with bite.