Vienna Beef: The Key to a Delicious Chicago Dog

vienna beef hot dog

When the woman who would one day be my wife first woke up in my New England college bedroom and gazed around at my messy little room, there were likely a few questions and concerns traversing through her mind. “How can I get out of here without making any noise?” was probably one. “Did I really go home with this guy?” was probably another. But I happen to know a less pressing question was “Why does this guy have a poster on his wall of a massive Hot Dog?” Most college males enjoy decorating their walls with Scarface posters, cliché images of the Rat Pack and the Sports Illustrated model of their fancy. But I had a giant poster of an encased meat product, the food item exaggerated to the size of the Merchandise Mart and poised naturally on the Chicago lakefront as if a permanent fixture to the skyline. If you’ve driven past the Vienna Beef factory store on Damen then you’ve likely seen this very image, a little tug boat hosing a tanker’s worth of mustard onto the towering dog amidst its salad-like toppings. So why on earth, my college guest would inquire, does this twisted individual have a shrine to a meat packing company affixed to his wall?

The answer of course is that the love of a Chicago hot-dog is more then a food item, it’s a religion. And Vienna Beef is our Vatican.

My esteemed colleagues have already dissected the importance and history of the Chicago Hot Dog, if you’re unfamiliar with its delicious breakdown then check it out. This article is dedicated to the vast influence and importance of the Vienna Beef Company, as important to the Chicago Hot Dog as Lake Michigan is to the Chicago River. By now you’ve discovered there’s a vast number of Hot Dog Stands (restaurants, not carts) scattered across the city and burbs. Not only do most of these places display the Vienna Beef sign, sometimes the meat provider’s logo is bigger then the restaurant’s actual name. This is how important Vienna Beef is to the Chicago dog.

Vienna Beef has been providing vendors with hot dogs, condiments, equipment and advice since 1894. They helped define the “Chicago Style Hot Dog” as what it was then, a cheap plentiful meal in a bun for those victim to the Great Depression. And they still define it today, from the steaming of the sesame bun to the seven essential ingredients, dictating with industry standards how neon one’s relish must be or what kind of sport peppers to use. They even offer classes on how to start your own hot dog business, providing the means for Chicago style hot dog joints across the world and thus giving poor stranded expatriates their hot dog fix. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been traveling in a distant country and stopped to speculate, “I wonder if I could start a Chicago eatery here.” While I may never muster up the courage, I’ll always know that Vienna Beef could provide me the ingredients and show me the way.

I could rattle on forever about my favorite hot dog stands and what they mean to me. I grew up on Wiener’s Circle’s char dogs, a kid budging (cutting) the line of drunk Cubs fans to politely ask the screaming woman for cheddar fries. Demon Dogs, Byron’s and Wolfy’s were points of orientation for me when learning to get around the city on my own. When I visited Evanston it meant going to Mustard’s Last Stand, and when I saw my cousins in Highland Park it always ended in a trip to Michael’s. These places and their grungy charm encompass everything that’s right about our city, and the “no ketchup rule” is an indication of just how seriously we take our traditions.

In fact, Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog is the name of Bob Schwartz’s book, the Senior Vice President of Vienna Beef who has been documenting Chicago hot dog stands for 30 years and has put his philosophy and findings into this coffee table guide. If you’re as fascinated by this topic as I am then I recommend a trip to the Vienna Beef factory store at 2501 N. Damen to pick up a copy and a hot dog.

Oh, that’s right, they actually operate a hot dog stand out of the factory store. It feels more like you’re sitting down at their business’s cafeteria then going to a local grease spot. Casual visitors sit and eat beside men in hairnets and hard hats. You can also buy mass quantities of Vienna Beef products here including all their sausage variates, condiments and stuff I didn’t even know they made like pastrami and corned beef. And finally, you can get yourself some Vienna Beef merchandise. Perhaps a poster for your college wall? And the Chicago obsession continues…

David Frankel McLean

About David Frankel McLean

I’ve been thinking philosophically about Chicago since I was jaywalking the streets at the age of 10. I don’t root for both baseball teams and I don’t put Ketchup on my hot dogs. When someone says they’re a Chicagoan they are speaking of a heritage and a doctrine, not just a location. What that doctrine is I’m not entirely sure, it’s constantly changing with the growth of the city and I’ll spend my entire life trying to figure it out.

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