Hot dogs that sizzle
By Joe Crea
Plain Dealer Food and Restaurants Editor
When's the last time you bit into a hot dog, and it really bit back?
Call 'em wieners or call 'em frankfurters. We're talking serious dogs. Not the feeble, flaccid tube steaks some marketing whiz cooked up to satisfy the lowest denominators of texture and taste. Think about it: When was the last time you took a chomp through a crisp, sizzling, natural casing and sank your teeth into a frank full of spice and sass, one that sputtered luscious juices with every bite?
Too long ago, right? Maybe it's time to shop around.
Granted, supermarkets abound with a spectrum of national and regional brands of mass-market hot dogs. Reliable and trusted, their popularity is broad - in large part because of their obsequiously mild flavor and tender bite (i.e. kid-friendly) and often bargain basement pricing.
While there's nothing wrong with bargain fare that satisfies the younger members of the family, why settle for just so-so when there are plenty of varieties out there really worth tucking into your bun?
Cleveland's a sausage kind of town, rife with ethnic meat markets and butcher shops where butchers still take pride in true Old World recipes. Hot dogs don't earn nearly the attention that, say, brats or kielbasa receive - a victim, perhaps, of the cheapened image of mass-market dogs - but some meat markets and manufacturers still treat wieners with an artisan's respect.
"We make wieners,' not hot dogs,' " says Bob Gutwein, co-owner of Storer Meat Co. in Cleveland, which sells under the Five Star and HealthQuest brands, in addition to a small amount of private-label products mostly sold outside of Ohio. "Oh, people say hot dog,' and they think of skinless chicken products. Not here. We make pure beef and pork wieners, the old German way."
Norm Heinle, who with wife Carol, operates The Sausage Shoppe in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood, admits that making and selling wieners doesn't carry quite the same, oh, cachet as does producing other fresh or smoked specialty sausages. Heinle, whose mentor was a wurschtmaster from Schweinford, Germany, insists that the original product's integrity be upheld.
"By comparison, fresh sausage is fairly easy to make," says Heinle. "You grind and season the meats, stuff it into a casing and display it. Wieners are different."
The additional equipment and steps, coupled with the sheer volume of competition - albeit nearly incomparable - make it an art fewer meat men pursue.
"It's pretty rare these days," Heinle adds.
There's also the kiddie factor, Heinle observes. Commercial brands of hot dogs marketed nationally take into account the tender palates of younger children. When they first bite into a natural casing wiener - tougher outside and usually spicier within - they're perplexed.
"A lot of kids don't like them," says Heinle. "But as they grow older, most folks acquire a taste for the more distinguished flavors and that bite' that makes all the difference."
The Sausage Shoppe's fastidious cases display four kinds of wieners. Thin German franks, in a more tender lamb casing, are well spiced with a tender bite. Thick German franks are stuffed into hog casings; "they give more of a snap' when you bite into them," says Heinle. German Garlics, sold in both thin and thick versions, are similarly seasoned but with a determinedly zesty hit of garlic. Knockwurst and an ever-changing array of brats round out the selection, alongside breakfast links, kielbasa, Italian and other varieties.
Storer Meats, which is probably Cleveland's only remaining locally based wholesale manufacturer of hot dogs, sticks with two key varieties. Its main product is the Five Star Old Fashioned Natural Casing Wiener, stuffed in lamb casings and each weighing about 2½ ounces, yielding about six wieners per pound. Their larger "dinner franks," weighing 3 to 4 ounces and stuffed into somewhat tougher hog casings, are commonly sold in meat markets.
Take a bite of either: Full of rich meat flavor, the spicing is at once comfortably familiar yet more pronounced and zesty.
"During summer, wieners are our calling card," says Gutwein. Most of the company's other products take a back seat during cookout season.
In Amish country, shoppers expect to find Old World traditions alive and flourishing. So they trek to Winesburg Meats Inc. in the heart of Amish country to buy old-fashioned specialties such as wieners, bacon and whole bone-in hams - "the kind of meat that has real flavor, real texture," says owner Marion Pacula.
"We sell more wieners than anything else," says Pacula. "We sell anywhere from 600 to 800 pounds per week." His customers travel from throughout Ohio, even other states, Pacula says.
Ask him why people get so worked up over something so simple as wieners, and Pacula's intense gaze bores through you.
"We've got our own mixture, people like it - and you've got to make what people like," he says. "Repeat sales are our backbone. Most of our sales aren't 1 or 2 pounds - we get gimme 5 pounds of hot dogs,' give me 10 pounds.' They stock up. They're not coming in every week; they're here maybe once a month."
When they load up, it's for wieners that are hickory smoked. "I've tried sassafras, I've tried cherry - don't like it, their flavors are too distinct. Everybody likes hickory," Pacula says. Varieties include robustly spiced regulars; an extra-garlicky variation; cheese wieners with mellow golden streaks throughout; and plain delicious but fiery jalapeno and cheese wieners - the kind of grownup indulgence best kept on the back of the grill to avoid scorching more tender palates.
Pacula scarcely blinks when you mention survivability. "I mean, we've got the market area here," he says. Heinle of The Sausage Shoppe recognizes the double-edged sword that is the nature of his business: Artisan foods such as his family's wieners and other sausages are simultaneously endangered and increasingly revered.
For a company such as Storer, growth means staying alive, pure and simple.
"You know the line: You stand still, you get run over," Gutwein says. You have to look for other avenues for distribution. The big get bigger, and the little guys get squeezed out.
"Cleveland's population is declining and aging; you have to look to other areas to maintain or grow your business. We're trying to maintain our specialty position - we're an Old World quality product, made here since 1967 in the European way. We know people want our kind of quality. Keeping it alive isn't easy. It comes down to: If we don't buy from and support the little guys, you'll only be able to buy whatever the big guys choose to sell you."
The Sausage Shoppe is located at 4501 Memphis Ave., in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood. For information on products, directions and hours of operation, call 216-351-5213.
Storer Meat Co.'s Five Star brand is sold at food stores throughout Northeast Ohio, including Tops, Giant Eagle, Dave's, Marc's, BJ's Warehouse stores, Sam's Club, Heinen's, Sparkle and Convenient Food stores.
Winesburg Meats Inc. is located at 2181 U.S. 62 in Winesburg, Ohio. The store will ship orders; phone 330-359-5092.
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© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.