The secrets behind Hey! Hot Dog, a Chicago classic for over 60 years – Inside
The original price of a hot dog—at least as far back as owner BJ Uedelhofen can remember—was 47 cents. A root beer was even 30 cents less. You know something works when the company has lasted this long, and Hey! Hot Dog has remained a classic Midwestiana bite for over 60 years.
Inside Hook sat down with Uedelhofen, for their menu recs, the story behind their famous root beer, and their take on the most controversial hot dog topping: ketchup.
InsideHook: Tell us a bit about the history of the hot dog stand.
BJ Uedelhofen: My dad and his partner started the business in 1959. My dad bought them in 1969. Just when I was 17, my dad gave me a set of keys and said, “You’re going to start to lock up at night and open it on Saturday. It just snowballed from there. I bought my mom and dad 30 years ago, so I’ve been doing it for probably – well, do the math. At least 45, which is…pretty scary.
You told us the guy on the sign isn’t you. Who is the guy on the panel and who came up with the idea behind him? Does it have a story?
When I bought the business from my father, it was called Hey! Hot Dog, but it didn’t really have a logo, so I had one made. It is not me. I would never put my face aside. It would ruin a business in two seconds.
Your menu is very very simple and hasn’t changed much in decades. What is the reason behind this?
In the very beginning, there was only the root beer, the barbecue sandwich, the hot dogs, the bag of chips and the root beer floats. It was the whole menu. We added the kielbasa sausage probably 25 years ago – maybe longer. We added a bowl of chili to the menu during the winter—it’s something we’ve been doing for about 10, 15 years.
Can you tell me how much your prices have changed? Do you remember the original prices back then?
I am 55 years old. Cheapest hot dog I remember is 47 cents. A root beer, I believe, was 15 or 18 cents — something like that. I could never tell you how many price increases there have been over the years because it’s been over 60 years.
The same root beer that was 15 or 18 cents is $1.95. That same hot dog that used to be 42 to 44 cents — something like that now costs $3.05. We just raised our prices for the first time in seven years.
What’s your favorite recommendation for people to come to your store if they’ve never been?
I would definitely tell them to get a big black cow – just the root beer and vanilla ice cream.
I love Polish sausage. I think it’s the best kept secret we have on our menu. We massively sell more chili dogs than any other product we have. But I must say that our barbecue sandwiches are my favorite. Hot dog number two and Polish number three, but it depends on my mood.
Why do you think you lasted so long?
We make our own homemade root beer. This is our niche. We make our own homemade chili and barbecue. No one else knows how to do this like ours. You must have a niche. And once you have the niche, all you have to do is show up. And if you’re nice to customers and you know you’re fair to them, you know, treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Tell us a bit about how your homemade recipe was born. Whose idea was that? How long did it take to develop?
The homemade root beer recipe is still the original recipe. My dad did it like the guys he bought in the 50s. We still do it the same way today. We actually have equipment from the late 50’s. I still use the same stainless steel barrel and the same long handled stainless steel spoon to mix the ingredients. The machine I have is actually a machine that mixes the product that we’ve been making since 1978, which is a pretty high-tech machine right now. Nothing has changed, in fact. It’s always the same recipes, always the same ingredients.
How long does it take you to make a batch of root beer?
If I really wanted to go through a lot, I could probably finish it in three days. I usually have one batch in progress and one batch ready to go. We very rarely miss it. I can maybe count five times that we missed. On average, we probably go through a lot — I don’t know, every three, four days, something like that.
Tell us your feelings about ketchup on a hot dog.
It’s not taboo here. I like this. I get a lot of customers who think you just shot him in the heart if you say “Do you want ketchup on your hot dog?” and they explode, but I would say there are as many customers who like ketchup as they don’t.
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