Omnivorous: The Local Wiener | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: The Local Wiener 

A Vienna Beef veep publishes a tribute to the people who sell the product.

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Bob Schwartz is standing at the counter of Murphy's Red Hots in Wrigleyville, telling counterman Bill Murphy about his last visit to the cardiologist.

"So he calls me at four o'clock, and he's got this somber voice," says Schwartz, senior vice president of sales for Vienna Beef. "He says, 'Bob, I looked at your stress test, and I have to tell you—we found a natural-casing hot dog in your right coronary artery.' So I said, 'Yes, I understand they're using them as stents now.'"

That earns Schwartz some yuks and a Polish with mustard, onions, tomato, and giardiniera, which he asserts is the thing to order at this 21-year-old stand, a loyal Vienna customer and a member of the company's Hot Dog Hall of Fame. Schwartz says Murphy's natural-casing dogs are "fabulous," of course, but the large Polish? "He puts it on the grill, scores it so it kind of opens up, so it gets a little crispy. And he uses a French roll, not a hot dog bun."

Schwartz knows his Polish. He calls himself the "official schmoozer" of Vienna's 1,200-some vendors and, as the bio in his new book Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog (out September 2 from Chicago's Books Press) puts it, he's "spent the last third of a century developing and enhancing strong emotions for the business and for the people who operate hot dog stands."

His career began in 1972, when he took a job in sales in the company's branch office in Cleveland, his hometown. After six months he was transferred to HQ in Chicago, where he moved up the ladder, overseeing the company's national branch offices and then the all-important local market. That's when he began to understand the importance of independent neighborhood stands like Gene & Jude's, Wolfy's, Superdawg, and Jimmy's Red Hots.

"I find that not having been born in Chicago gives me a better sense of this," he says. "It's kind of like they say a blind person has better senses. It just has impressed me so much that when people go into a hot dog stand they feel that it is a part of their life. That they have ownership of that—something that doesn't exist in your chains and your other restaurant concepts that are out there."

Unlike conglomerate-owned brands like Oscar Mayer and Ball Park Franks, the privately owned Vienna doesn't budget much for consumer-oriented advertising or major sponsorships, instead emphasizing promotion at the vendor level. That's why you can't buy a Vienna Beef hot dog at a Cubs game, but you can at almost any stand in Wrigleyville.

Schwartz says around the end of the Depression—when the Chicago-style dog came into its own—Vienna would loan entrepreneurs seed money or finance their equipment. And the company continues to provide its ubiquitous customized signage in an ever-expanding array of colors and designs—vendors can add their logo and choose the size, wording ("jumbo," "classic"), and slogan ("This dog is rated NK-17. No ketchup unless under the age of 17," reads one placard).

Two years ago Schwartz started the hall of fame at viennabeef.com, recognizing Chicago stands that had been in business for at least 20 years and had had some notable impact on their communities (and had sold Vienna products, of course). Those included venerable local stands like Skyway Dog House, on the 9400 block of South Ewing, where owner Bob Polk has a "Where Are They Now?" gallery of high school kids who've worked for him since his opening in 1969. It was while writing Polk's induction letter that Schwartz had the idea to write a history of Chicago hot dog stands.

The book is a nostalgic tribute to these stands, with introductions by Bob Sirott and expat Los Angeles stand owner Joe Mantegna. It's filled with feel-good anecdotes from classic stands like Fluky's, whose owner, Abe Drexler, is often said to have invented the five-cent "Depression sandwich" we know today as the Chicago-style dog at his original location, opened in 1929 at the corner of Roosevelt and Halsted. Then there's the apocryphal tale of Gene & Jude's founder Gene Mormino losing his Little Italy stand (now Polk & Western Hot Dogs) in a game of Texas hold 'em, prompting his relocation to west-suburban River Grove.

Schwartz, whose license plate reads pstrami, also includes a chapter on some of the Runyonesque Vienna sales reps of yore, like "the Great Minguini" and "the Schnep." It describes an era when, according to Schwartz, jobbers might barge into a hot dog stand and demand "Gimme the f----n' money you owe me!" or get behind the counter in a powder blue suit to help out during a busy lunch rush. "It is not a Northwestern MBA program that you needed to sell hot dogs in Chicago," he says. "You needed street sense."

Nowadays Vienna's sales force is smaller and less hands-on, which is why Schwartz has stepped away from desk work and assumed many of those schmoozing duties. Neighborhood hot dog stands in Chicagoland are in decline too—by some 18 percent over the last ten years, according to a 2006 article in Crain's. Schwartz keeps a list of them in his planner, broken down by neighborhood and suburb, and drops in periodically. "You say hello and you tell them you're from Vienna. You're not there to tell them about a price increase or anything in particular, but you want to find out how their business is and how are we doing? That's what I enjoy. I'm a food guy. That's what's in my blood."v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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