Building a brand one hot dog at a time

by Donna Berry
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CHICAGO — Prior to the National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show (N.R.A.) that is scheduled to take place May 20-23 in Chicago, executives working in Chicago’s food industry gathered on May 11 to address issues related to corporate growth and leadership to members of the Association for Corporate Growth (A.C.G.) Chicago. The A.C.G. Chicago is a network of more than 12,000 decision-making professionals ranging from corporate executives to capital investors to financial advisers. Top of mind issues at the meeting included brand building and brand protection.

"The reputation of a brand is like a freight train,” said Jim Bodman, chairman and chief executive officer of Vienna Beef, a 123-year old Chicago company. “It goes up the hill very slowly, but can come crashing down very fast.”

Vienna Beef frankfurters hot dogs
Vienna Beef is an iconic brand in Chicago.
 

Mr. Bodman started working at Vienna Beef in the warehouse more than 50 years ago and still believes there should be no ketchup on a true Chicago-style hot dog. He explained that every true Chicagoan has a memory or two of eating a Chicago-style dog and it is paramount that those memories be positive, which is why he focuses so much on protecting the Vienna Beef brand.

“Vienna Beef has long been an iconic brand in Chicago,” Mr. Bodman said. “(We were able to grow the brand because) we refused to dilute our brand name.”

He cited the example of the time when the company sold turkey breast to food service and chose not to brand it Vienna. 

Jim Bodman, Vienna Beef
Jim Bodman, chairman and c.e.o. of Vienna Beef

“If you are really good at making (beef) hot dogs, that does not mean you are very good at turkey,” Mr. Bodman said. “We used to be a hot dog company, today we are more, (but we still use our brand carefully). You won’t find it on the pickles, soups or chilies we produce.”

It is on beef (hot dogs, pastrami and Italian-style sliced with gravy tubs) and condiments. These include green relish, yellow mustard, celery salt, sports peppers and giardiniera.

“Over the years, we refused to associate with companies who we did not like or appreciate—restaurants who were not good operators,” Mr. Bodman said. “We did not want to affiliate with poor operators.”

Vienna Beef products
Vienna Beef also produces condiments and buns.

When the Vienna Beef reputation was ever called into question, for example, having a Vienna Beef sign at a hot dog stand that was selling inferior product, the company would “hire lawyers to take our brand name away from them,” he said.

Mr. Bodman explained that even during challenging economic times, the company stayed true to its all-beef recipe, staying away from adding extra fat, soy or other extenders to lower costs.

“It’s the hardest thing to be a sales rep for a product that costs more than the competition,” he said. “We’ve been tempted many times to lower costs, but you have to make a product that lives up to consumers’ expectations.”

Portillo's Chicago-style hot dog
Portillo’s Hot Dogs serves a number of Vienna Beef products.
 

When asked about how hot dogs play into today’s health and wellness movement, he said, “It’s about everything in moderation. If you are going to indulge in a hot dog, like while watching the Cubs or Sox, we believe it will be our hot dog, which is the best.”

Portillo’s Hot Dogs L.L.C., Oak Brook, Ill., serves a number of Vienna Beef products. The company, which started as “The Dog House” in 1963 in Villa Park, Ill., in a trailer without running water, now has restaurants throughout Chicago as well as in six other states (Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin).

Keith Kinsey, Portillo's
Keith Kinsey, c.e.o. of Portillo’s Hot Dogs

“We had 98% awareness in Chicago (back in 2005 when we started expanding beyond Illinois),” said Keith Kinsey, c.e.o. “We had to figure out how to create that same excitement and energy in new markets.”

Mr. Kinsey explained that Portillo’s reputation is built on four principles. They are: atmosphere, cleanliness, quality and service.

“We believe our restaurants are also built on stories,” he said. “We take our talent that has been developed and merge it with new people in the new locations.”

They create their own unique stories. They also create consistent product.

Sonic Drive-In hot dog
A Chicago-style hot dog is topped with mustard, onions, relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt.
 

“We prepare our (special recipe) beef at our own commissaries and chop our own vegetables,” Mr. Kinsey said. “Each restaurant bakes our famous chocolate cake.”

Every Portillo’s location serves the same products, including its Chicago-style hot dog.

What exactly is a Chicago-style hot dog? It is a hot dog —preferably all beef — topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. It never has ketchup.  
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READER COMMENTS (2)

By Brian Gomberg 5/18/2017 2:05:35 PM
Vienna products are second to none. Hot digging dog,my fav

By Mike Dunker 5/17/2017 1:19:30 PM
No ketchup ever. Can't wait for store to open in Minnesota. My favorite place to when I can find one