A Real Under–‘Dog’

By Tom Wray, associate editor

Simple, traditional hot dogs continue to drive sales and increase in popularity after more than a century.
Hot dogs are one of those foods that never seems to get respect. Most people associate them with a picnic or ballgame. Furthermore, there aren’t even many national hot dog QSR chains. But that little sausage link has a weight far more than one might think.
Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog Council at the American Meat Institute, says hot dogs are a major part of the food industry. For 2006, sales ended with 730 million packages at retail stores. And that’s not including packages sold through Wal-mart, which doesn’t report sales data. That represents $1.5 billion in sales just for that year.
“We estimate roughly half of hot dogs are consumed away from home, but that number is very difficult to track because it includes everything from ballparks to the corner hot dog stand,” Riley says.
Rich Green, hot dog brand manager for Oscar Mayer in Madison, Wis., offers some tidbits about the truly amazing popularity of the wiener. During the Fourth of July weekend, Americans will eat 150 million hot dogs. And between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the traditional summer season, enough hot dogs will be consumed in the country in one year to circle the globe 15 times.
Hometown favorite
Regional chains, such as Wienerschnitzel, Dairy Queen and Frank & Stein, carry the bulk of sales for the humble hot dog. The little link is seen in a more personal way than many items found in QSRs. Every region has its own version which it believes to be the best.
Howard Eirinberg, president and chief operating officer of Vienna Beef in Chicago, confirms that. He sees it in his company’s sales.
Vienna Beef has national distribution, but fully half of its sales all take place in the state of Illinois. What's even more telling? “We have particular strength in areas where ex-Chicagoans have moved,” he says, listing Sun Belt states like Arizona and Texas as areas of high sales.
“I think it’s very much a regional food,” Eirinberg continues. “The way they eat them in Chicago is very different than New York and very different than California. They seem to be more passionate, they have their favorite way to prepare, and favorite place to buy it.”
That regional devotion is the biggest reason there hasn’t been a big national hot dog QSR, Eirinberg says. The regional differences are too much for a national chain to handle. For example, in Chicago, hot dogs are boiled and served on a poppy seed bun with tomato slices. Ketchup is forbidden. But in New York, the dogs are cooked on a flat pan grill and served with a plain bun. Ketchup isn’t a problem as a condiment.
“Each landscape has its distinctive local topping,” says Green. “For example, in the Midwest, the combination of mustard, ketchup, onion and sweet pickle relish is popular. In the Southern region, jalapeños and other spicy condiments are common.”
Even the Hot Dog Council hears about that commitment to a regional dog.
“Retirees in Florida write to us from time to time asking us to help them track down their favorite dog that they enjoyed growing up in Jersey or Boston because the Florida dogs just don’t taste right to them,” Riley says.
With commitment like that, hot dogs don’t necessarily need to be given a boost. But the Hot Dog Council does work to keep them front and center in consumers’ minds. The council works to develop new hot dog recipes, all of which can be found at, and work to keep the links in the news with media releases.
The council serves as a place for consumers and media to get information on the quality, safety, nutrition and preparation of hot dogs and sausages. It also serves as the sponsor of National Hot Dog Month in July, the height of the summer barbecue season. Television viewers can see some of the Hot Dog Council’s work on the History Channel program “America Eats,” which had an episode devoted solely to hot dogs.
“We love hot dogs here at the council, and we seek every opportunity to tell the world about them,” Riley says.
Mature market
Eirinberg doesn’t see a lot of growth in the category overall. He says growth has been flat, if not declining. But he has seen a trend in the composition of the category.
“We’re seeing a shift from the lower end to the higher end,” Eirinberg says. “What the consumer is saying is, if I’m gonna indulge, I’m gonna indulge in the best I can get,” That bodes well for Vienna Beef, which aims for that segment of the market.
Oscar Mayer is one company that is in position to know of such details and popularity. It sells more hot dogs than any other company, both in pounds sold and market share. And like Vienna Beef and other popular brands, it has been producing hot dogs almost since the little link first arrived in America more than 100 years ago.
The two companies differ in advertising strategies. Vienna Beef, with its strong core market in the Chicago-metro area, doesn’t do much traditional advertising. Instead, much of its advertising is done through hot dog stands throughout the region that sell Vienna Beef hot dogs, with the company logo prominently on the stand’s sign. That’s done as part of a decades-long program where the company helps hot dog stands start through financing and advice.
“It goes back to the Depression where we would literally help people get their start,” says Eirinberg. “We still rely on that.”
The result is that Vienna ads are rarely seen in local media, but everyone in the region knows the company.
Oscar Mayer does more traditional advertising, and some of those ad vehicles are just that. The iconic Weinermobile has been a trademark of the company for decades, again showing the long-term popularity of hot dogs.
The company is also using traditional and new media to continue promoting hot dogs.
“Currently we are conducting a promotion called Sing the Jingle, Be A Star,” says Green. “The promotion is integrated and is being supported through advertising, PR, the Web and other marketing tactics. Our brand familiarity, high quality and great taste provide Oscar Mayer with a strong consumer loyalty.”