Menu Innovations | July 2016 | By Barney Wolf

How Hot Dogs—Yes, Hot Dogs—Are a Menu Winner

Guess what? Hot dogs and sausages aren’t as boring as you thought. Here's how to wow your customers with wacky wiener flavors and ingredients.
Weiners can be winners with an emphasis on quality and innovation
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council reports that there are 18 regional hot dog varieties in the U.S. thinkstock

Let’s be frank. Hot dogs and sausages can be winners.

Although hamburgers and chicken get the lion’s share of attention as quick-service restaurant entrées, wieners also hold a respected place as a contributor to the growth of fast food. From hot dog carts dating to the 19th century to today’s brick-and-mortar locations, restaurants have embraced frankfurters as a critical component of foodservice success.

“It’s a relatively easy way to start out,” says Eric Mittenthal, president of the Washington, D.C.–based National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC), adding that the dish is simply a wiener, bun, and toppings that can range from mustard to sauerkraut to chili sauce. “You see hot dogs sold in big cities and small towns, at iconic hot dog joints and local favorites. There are many hot dog options all over the country.”

The NHDSC estimates that Americans eat 20 billion hot dogs annually, with slightly more than half consumed away from home, including at restaurants, street carts, and ballparks.

There are three reasons hot dogs have remained strong menu items, says Terri Snyder, chief marketing officer for the Tampa, Florida–based Checkers and Rally’s drive-thru chains.

“People are looking for nostalgia; hot dogs remind us of a good time in our lives,” she says, adding that those memories could be grilling in the backyard with family, enjoying a picnic, or attending a baseball game. In addition, dogs “are very portable,” and chefs are creating interesting versions of hot dogs and sausages, Snyder says.

“These items are an incredible platform for customization,” adds Scott Uehlein, vice president of product innovation and development at Sonic Drive-In. In short, a variety of specialty dogs can be created with the same type of frank as the base, he says.

Hot dogs’ origin are in finely ground meat sausages that were popular in Frankfurt, Germany, and dubbed “frankfurters.” In Vienna, Austria—Wien being the city’s German name—that resulted in the name wiener.

In America, franks, also called tube steaks, were put in buns, and the hot dog was born. These cured and cooked sausages now consist of emulsified beef, pork, chicken, or turkey meat mixed with water and spices and stuffed in a natural or cellulose casing. The meat generally comes from animal muscle, not byproducts, Mittenthal says.

The vast majority of wieners are skinless, cooked inside a cellulose casing that is later removed. Franks in pricier natural casings—like all sausages, these are animal intestines—feature a characteristic “snap” when eaten.

A major part of the hot dog’s and sausage’s taste is its spicing. Not all wieners are the same, but they typically have common spices that create a distinct taste: white pepper, garlic, nutmeg, coriander, and onion flavor to go with the salt in curing.

“That’s pretty standard for a hot dog,” says Zak Otto, technical research and development manager for protein at Wixon, the custom seasoning company in St. Francis, Wisconsin.

A number of other flavors, such as brown sugar and citrus blends, have been added. “There will be times,” Otto says, “you will add smoked flavoring or particulates, like jalapeños or cheese. If you want color, something like paprika is added for red hots.”

There is plenty of variety in sausages, which typically contain various pork grinds, but also can be made with beef, turkey, or chicken. Here, too, “the spices are often more important than the cuts of meat,” Otto says.

There are more than 200 sausage varieties in the U.S. There’s not only bratwurst, for instance, but also brats with designer peppers or with beer and cheese. Various woods are now used to smoke the sausages.

Bratwursts typically feature black pepper, nutmeg, ginger, onion flavoring, sage, and sometimes cardamom, while another popular sausage, Italian, has salt, black pepper, anise, or fennel, and often a note of garlic.

While the most popular type of hot dog is topped with mustard, sauerkraut, and onions—ketchup is more controversial—there are 18 regional styles, according to the NHDSC. Some have gained national attention, most notable being the Chicago dog, which features an all-beef wiener—often a Vienna Beef natural-casing frank—topped with yellow mustard, green relish, chopped onions, pickle spears, sport peppers, tomato slices, and celery salt on a poppy seed bun.

Other regional styles include Southern-style dogs that count coleslaw among their toppings, and the Southwest’s Sonoran dog, which features a bacon-wrapped hot dog on a bun with pinto beans, grilled onions and green peppers, and tomatillo jalapeño salsa.

Several regional styles evolved from the Coney Island, a hot dog with meat sauce created by Greek immigrants. Among the varieties is the Cincinnati Coney, typically a pork and beef dog topped with cinnamon and chocolate-tinged chili and Cheddar cheese.

Quick-service restaurant hot dogs received a boost in interest this year when Burger King launched a major media campaign introducing its flame-grilled dogs.

“This is one of the larger product launches we’ve had in some time, our way of bringing flame grilling to a great product folks know and love,” CEO Daniel Schwartz told investors. “They’ve quickly become guest favorites.”

Burger King partnered with Kraft Heinz’s Oscar Mayer—both companies are controlled by investment firm 3G Capital—to develop the skinless hot dogs that are topped with ketchup, mustard, onions, and relish or with chili and cheese.

A couple of months later, McDonald’s began serving grilled Johnsonville bratwurst sandwiches in southeast Wisconsin for a limited time.

But hot dogs and sausages have been a fixture for years at many quick-service restaurants and are served at a number of fast casuals, too.

Wieners are at the heart of the menu at both Wienerschnitzel, mostly in the western U.S., and Nathan’s Famous, largely in the nation’s eastern half. Wienerschnitzel offers more than a dozen versions of its skinless hot dogs, with the most popular being its Chili Cheese Dog.

“It’s what we were founded on,” says Doug Koegeboehn, chief marketing officer of the chain, which has served grilled dogs since 1961.

The frank used is a mix of beef, pork, and chicken with a special spice blend, while the chili is “a secret recipe, our own proprietary blend that we finish in the store daily by adding fresh ground beef,” Koegeboehn says. The menu item includes an American cheese slice.

Other options are a larger Angus beef hot dog and a Polish sausage. Both can be substituted for the regular hot dog in any of the menu varieties. There’s also a Chicago Dog, the Junkyard Dog that is a Chili Cheese Dog with mustard, grilled onions, and french fries, and the Blazin’ Dog topped with green jalapeño slices and a red jalapeño and garlic hot sauce.

The Irvine, California–based chain’s Corn Dog and Mini Corn Dog employ a chicken frank. Limited-time dogs have included a Pastrami Dog topped with pastrami, Swiss cheese, mustard, and a pickle, and a Bratwurst for Oktoberfest.

At Nathan’s Famous, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, there are four basic items using that brand’s all-beef franks: the original, cheese, chili, and chili cheese. Restaurants that have a flat grill use natural-casing dogs; others offer skinless wieners.

Featuring a natural casing “is sort of a regional thing,” says Scott Harvey, executive vice president for the Jericho, New York–based company. “In the Northeast, where we’ve had 100 years of history, people are used to taking a bite and getting that snap.”

Most customers choose dogs topped with sauerkraut or sautéed onions, along with ketchup, mustard, and relish, he says. The very traditional New York Empire Dog is served with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard.

There are a dozen other specialty dogs on the menu, such as the Homestyle Mac & Cheese Dog, topped with macaroni and cheese and toasted Italian bread crumbs, or the Big Irish Corned Beef Dog, which is an Empire Dog with corned beef.

Sonic and Checkers/Rally’s, both known for burgers, have had franks on the menu for decades.

Checkers/Rally’s sells an all-beef hot dog “seasoned to a taste profile that is bold and as good as you want to taste,” Snyder says. Historically, Rally’s also has had a Polish sausage that “provides a little more value and lots of flavor.”

Oklahoma City–based Sonic has featured a foot-long beef and pork Coney on its menu for 60 years, “so we have some credibility,” Uehlein says. The company upgraded that dog six years ago and in 2011 added a line of four all-beef regional hot dogs.

“It’s a point of differentiation, so why not be innovative?” he says. The premium dogs—Chili Cheese Coney, Chicago Dog, New York Dog with grilled onions and sauerkraut, and All-American Dog with ketchup, mustard, relish, and onions—have done very well, Uehlein adds.

Another innovation at Sonic is the Pretzel Dog, replacing a typical bun with a pretzel one. The chain also has a Corn Dog.

While sausage patties, links, and chunks have been part of breakfast menus for years, one Mexican favorite, chorizo, is also part of burritos and tortas sold all day at La Mesa, California–based Sombrero Mexican Food. The chile-spiced chorizo is removed from the casing, weighed for consistency, and fried on the grill “so that it melts” to a good consistency, says Javier Correa Jr., chief operating officer. It is then scrambled with eggs and put in a burrito or torta.

“There is quite a bit of variation in chorizo,” he says. “It depends on the meat and spices. Our blend has lots of flavor and is not too dry.”

Several fast-casual burger restaurants also feature hot dogs. At Five Guys, the choice is a Hebrew National frank, which “is the highest-quality hot dog we could find,” says Molly Catalano, vice president of marketing and communications.

The wiener is split, cooked on the grill, and then topped with the customers’ choice of items. While hot dogs amount to only 4 percent of sales, they remain available because they are easy to maintain, simple to cook, and keep loyal customers happy, Catalano says.

At Dog Haus, however, hot dogs are the big sellers, as the name suggests. The Pasadena, California–based fast casual has seven hot dog builds for its skinless beef wieners, as well as seven sausage builds. Veggie versions of both are available.

“Hot dogs are such an approachable item, but there are a lot of sausages some people have never heard of,” says Hagop Giragossian, a partner at Dog Haus. Nonetheless, the sausages use “fantastic” cuts of meat, and the chain takes many traditional flavors “and elevates them,” he says.

The No. 1 menu item is Dog Haus’ original offering, the Sooo Cali, which is a hot dog topped with arugula, basil aioli, crisp onions, avocado, and tomatoes. “It’s a little spicy and a little sweet, with a lot of texture,” he says.

The top sausage is Das Brat, a bratwurst with mustard aioli, sauerkraut, White American cheese, and caramelized onions. A creative one is Another Night in Bangkok, which features a spicy Thai currywurst, Thai peanut sauce, Asian slaw, and crushed peanuts.

“We are able to be creative, and that’s been fun,” Giragossian says. “It’s different than with hamburgers. You can be really innovative.”

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