The Top Dogs
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
As hot dogs continue to fly off supermarket shelves, marketing campaigns continue to get more creative.
The numbers are clear: If the hot dog isn’t America’s favorite food, it’s definitely high on the list. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC) relays that supermarket sales of hot dogs totaled $1.8 billion in 2004, with 837 million packages sold. And we’re right in the middle of the peak hot dog season. Hot dog producers estimate that an average of 38 percent of hot dog sales are made between Memorial Day and Labor Day. July, which is National Hot Dog Month, accounts for 10 percent of sales alone. Last year, there was approximately $614 million in sales from June through August.
The American Meat Institute commemorated National Hot Dog Month by hosting its Annual Hot Dog Lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on July 20. Along with honorary co-hosts Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Rep. Colin Peterson (D-MN), baseball greats Tommy John, Harmon Killebrew, and Luis Tiant were also on hand. The NHDSC has also produced a Planning Guide to help its members celebrate the month.
It may seem odd that one food product deserves such attention. Then again, there are few other foods that can inspire such devotion among its consumers. Tom Davis, president of Nathan’s Famous, Westbury, NY, says, “Every day we get letters from loyal users, telling us that they have friends who have never tasted a ‘real’ hot dog — because they haven’t yet tried Nathan’s. That’s the kind of endorsement that money can’t buy.”
“The following we have around the country is almost cult-like,” Jim Bodman, chairman and owner of Vienna Beef, Chicago, IL, says. “We spend a great deal energy doing only one thing to support that, and that’s making these hot dogs out of the finest possible ingredients that we could put our hands on. People appreciate that, and the fact that we haven’t been willing to make the product and cheaper.”
“People like to eat hot dogs,” says Rick Searer, president of Oscar Mayer, Madison, WI. “It’s a fun food.”
Bar-S Foods, Phoenix, AZ, is introducing Bar-S Family Pack Turkey Franks in time for the grilling season. “This three-pound package of turkey franks is made with forty percent less fat than USDA data for turkey franks, and is perfect for a large family Fourth of July barbeque,” says Robert Uhl, president. He notes that the low-fat and low-carb turkey franks represent a new trend in the hot dog industry.
As further evidence that the hot dog market now stretches far beyond the traditional all-beef frank, Nathan’s Famous of Westbury, NY, introduced a Cheddar Cheese & Beef Frank and Corn Dogs.
Both retailers and producers tend to take advantage of the summer season to promote hot dogs. “We offer hot dog promotions weekly, with more emphasis and attention during the higher-demand grilling months of May through September,” says Brian Frey, marketing assistant, corporate communications for Giant Eagle Inc., which has 138 corporate and 81 independently-owned and operated grocery stores throughout western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland.
“In addition, we look for opportunities to promote our hot dog offering via special event pages in our weekly circular, as well as in-store seasonal/themed periods such as baseball opening day, picnics/grill outs, football tailgating, etc.”
For hot dog producers, marketing their product can allow for some creative campaigns. Bar-S, for example, has launched a “Win a Weekend with Rusty Wallace at the Big Race in Daytona 2006” sweepstakes. Winners will be flown out to Daytona Beach to meet the NASCAR legend and watch the race at Daytona Speedway from the front-stretch grandstand. NASCAR hats and jackets are also being given away. “Retailers across the country have gotten behind the promotion and are featuring it in-store and in ads,” says Uhl. “NASCAR fans are the ultimate Bar-S consumers, and we’ve had great success using RWI Racing and the NASCAR Busch series to promote Bar-S products, particularly franks.”
Throughout the rest of the year, Bar-S helps keep sales steady through local events, such as minor-league baseball games, tailgating events, and tie-in promotions.
Nathan’s Famous, Westbury, NY, has a marketing event that is so well-known it is broadcast nationally on ESPN. Nathan’s hot dog eating contest is held annually in Coney Island, where the first Nathan’s stand started in 1916. “This, as well as the local events around the country leading up to it, is publicity that we couldn’t buy,” notes Tom Davis, president. “While a hot dog eating contest may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s nevertheless great exposure for the brand.”
This year’s repeat champion was Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan, who won his fifth consecutive title and retained the “mustard yellow international belt.” While he didn’t break his record of 53-1/2 hot dogs and buns, his tally of 49 was a dozen more than his closest competitor. “If you’re going to ask someone to swallow a record number of hot dogs in twelve minutes, it had better be a great-tasting hot dog,” says Davis.
Oscar Mayer’s promotional efforts are aided by the Weinermobile, which has been one of the most recognized icons of the company since 1936. There are currently six Weinermobiles in use around the country. Last year, the company ran a promotional contest, asking its consumers what they would do if they had use of the Weinermobile and $5,000. “We fulfilled fifty people’s wishes, and some of the stories we received were just heartwarming,” says Jeffrey Meyer, category business director. Among the winners were an 82-year-old woman who used it for her Meals on Wheels program, and a child who used the Weinermobile to raise funds for researching a debilitating disease that afflicted his best friend.
This year’s contest is “Win the Ride of Your Life,” where 20 winners can win the use of the Weinermobile, along with $5,000, by writing what they would do with it in 100 words or less. “We’re also having an on-pack game,” Meyer adds. “We’re giving away five random rides of their lives to winners, and we’re also going to hand out 100,000 keychains as prizes, and also 1,500 Radio Flyer wagons.”
The contest was kicked off on Memorial Day weekend at the Charlotte, NC, Speedway. Four NASCAR drivers, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Michel Jourdain, and Todd Cleaver, raced Weinermobiles around the track. The race, which was run at around 40 miles per hour, was won by Busch, and highlights appeared on ESPN and CNN. “The drivers are people who drive race cars at two hundred miles an hour, and they were all saying what a fun ride it was,” Meyer says.
The contest fulfillment will run through the end of the year, giving the company of stories to last until next summer. Along with that, Oscar Mayer will be running advertisements and promotion activity with retailers during the off-season months. “There is the pure fact that we are going to sell more hot dogs during the grilling season,” Meyer says. “We don’t try to fight that, but we also make sure we supplement and support it beyond that.”
Vienna Beef, a staple in Chicago supermarkets, restaurants, and sporting arenas, is taking its product nationwide, thanks to a distribution deal with Target stores. Under the terms of the deal, food courts in 1,350 Target stores will begin selling Vienna hot dogs, and nearly 1,000 Targets with refrigerated food sales will begin selling the packaged hot dogs.
“It’s a substantial amount of volume for us,” says Bodman. He adds that the increase in volume won’t cause much change in the company’s Chicago facility. “They’re buying a regular product that we make. It’s right in our wheelhouse, if you will. We don’t have to add a new room. We will have to hire some more people, and we will have to put in a little bit of packaging equipment, but not much. Basically, our facility can handle this increase in our volume, and we’re able to do it very efficiently.”
Vienna beat out nationally-known brands like Hebrew National and Best Kosher to secure the agreement. “Target, I think, recognizes the fact that we’re the last independent, highly-recognized brand product that doesn’t add extruders into our sausage,” Bodman says. “I think they were anxious to have a product that was made by a company that followed the old-time tradition that they’re trying to get across.” He adds that the Vienna brand, unlike other national brands of hot dogs, will not be found in all of Target’s competitor stores.
Almost 40 percent of the company’s business is in the Chicago area, and the company is also represented in Southern California, the Phoenix/Tucson area, and the Rust Belt cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. Target will be marketing the brand in new regions, Bodman notes. “I think they’re going to lean more in the institution of the Chicago-style hot dog, as opposed to the Vienna name, but our name will travel along with it,” he says.
Nathan’s could be considered the textbook example of a regional hot dog manufacturer achieving national popularity. The company started expanding its reach in 1995, says Davis. “The first, most logical geographic market was Florida, because the ‘snow birds’ who came down south for the winter were missing out on their favorite hot dogs while they were there.” From there, the coverage spread up the Atlantic Coast and across the country to the West Coast, aided by promotions such as sponsorships, demos, cookouts, and local hot dog eating contests.
The growth has helped Nathan’s become one of the top-selling retail brands in the country, and its demographics are expanding beyond the snow bird market in the Mid-Atlantic and Florida. “Our geographic reach is expanding, which indicates that a younger crowd is starting to buy our product,” Davis says. “The East Coast is typically a big market for beef hot dogs, but we’re making great strides on the West Coast and penetrating new markets in the Midwest.” NP