Unlike certain uppity foods and beverages that are always trying to force their way into more rarefied culinary air—think fried chicken at white-tablecloth restaurants, the gentrification of coffee, or the rampant upscaling of pizza—hot dogs know their place.

You won’t find them center-plate at state dinners. And no one has ever attempted to impress a date by inviting him or her over to the house for a meal of hot dogs and barbecue-flavor potato chips … though at a more advanced stage in the relationship, this menu might be not just tolerated, but downright welcomed.

No, hot dogs may not be ambitious, and they aren’t going to cut it at formal affairs. But they are popular. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council proudly reports that consumers spent $2.5 billion on hot dogs in U.S. supermarkets in 2015. Major League Baseball parks sell north of $18 million worth of dogs each year. And after Burger King placed grilled dogs on its menu in February, one large franchisee’s CEO reported that initial response had
been overwhelming.

The challenge for chains interested in following Burger King’s lead has nothing to do with operational complexity and everything to do with making a standard-issue hot dog stand out in a crowd. After all, the basic formula is pretty well established: tubular protein, fluffy enriched bun, and a limited range of condiments. Not terribly inspiring.

Or is it? When we at CCD Innovation begin new-product ideation sessions with our Chefs Council, we start with a blank canvas, break each element of a product down into its discrete parts, and start thinking about novel approaches to building a better or more dynamic version. In the case of hot dogs, for instance, we would take each of the three elements mentioned above, come up with various possible ways to enliven it, and then start thinking about how we could bring the best of these together.

So, dear readers, I invite you to play along. This month, I’m going to suggest a series of possible ways to ratchet up the humble hot dog. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to add your own ideas and come up with finished products that represent some novel and exciting variations on a theme. Then consider sharing these with me at Marc@QSRmagazine.com, and I’ll mention the best of them here in a future column.

Ready? Let’s go.

Creative carriers

The world of potentially exciting alternative carriers is as big and broad as a ballpark footlong. Here are just some of the ideas I came up with in a three-minute brainstorm session: flavored puff pastry, rye bread, sweet or savory brioche, mustard-seed-flavored croissant dough, pancakes, crêpes, phyllo dough, pita, pizza dough, steamed bao buns, egg-roll sheets, naan, injera (spongy Ethiopian flatbread), masa, and a traditional hot dog dipped in potato batter or rolled in potato bread and then cooked to a toasty brown. Wrap any one of these around a traditional dog and you’ve got a unique spin on a tried-and-true form.

Proteins with pizazz

We’re accustomed by now to seeing hot dogs made with chicken or turkey, typically geared toward consumers who prefer lower-fat offerings. And vegetarian/soy dogs have been around for eons. But the number and variety of alternative proteins that could be deftly incorporated into a hot dog are many and varied, from duck to buffalo, lamb to corned beef, and short ribs to pork belly. Then there are hybrids: pork and beef, chuck and brisket, and so on. Any or all could make for a particularly delicious dog.

Condiments with global cachet

Hot dogs are quintessentially American. They’re also phenomenally well suited to being given a distinctive ethnic spin with the right sauces and condiments. One or more of the options that follow can utterly transform a hot dog into something exotic: kimchi; pickled mangoes, carrots, and onions; cranberry compote; green papaya; ponzu-wasabi slaw; plantains; banana peppers; fried noodles; wasabi peas; pumpkin seeds; tortilla chips; mac and cheese; gochujang, a Korean hot sauce; aji amarillo, a Peruvian chile; guava barbecue sauce; chimichurri; charred jalapeño lime aioli; sriracha aioli; garlic-wasabi aioli; Thai peanut sauce; wasabi mayo; fried shallots; flavored cream cheeses; béchamel sauce; hollandaise sauce; herbs de Provence; and togarashi, a Japanese dry spice mixture.

All of which is to suggest that given a blank page; a broad array of global sauces, seasonings, and condiments; some alternative proteins; and some intriguing carriers, quick-serve chains can carve out a unique niche for their hot dog offerings without creating a great deal of operational complexity. And that would be great news for legions of consumers who enjoy putting a little something extra on the dog.

Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert, Story