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Frankly speaking, haute dogs go gourmet

Wasabi mayo, Wagyu beef among features

USA Today, September 18, 2006

Folks who regard hot dogs as mystery meat may be in for an aquatic surprise: salmon franks.

That's right, hot dogs, made from imported salmon. On whole-grain buns, no less. They'll be out later this month, at $3.49, when gourmet hot dog chain Franktitude is scheduled to open its first of five eateries in the Miami area.

Then, there are Franktitude's 25 toppings - from Wasabi mayo to artichokes to banana chips. More are on tap, says CEO Ari Wurmann.

This may be just the latest twist in the "upscaling" of hot dogs. The $511 billion restaurant industry - which has cashed in on gourmet burgers, pizza and coffee - is unleashing a slew of gourmet hot dogs on consumers. Some are organic. Some, tofu. In a few cases, prices can rival steak.

"It's the 'Starbucking' of the hot dog," says Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.

Much of the upscaling is taking place outside Chicago - famous for indigestion-risking "Chicago style" hot dogs (sans ketchup but with lots of other toppings). After five years of flat sales, the $1.6 billion hot dog world has decided that the best way to grow is gourmet.

"It's one of the last great American entrepreneurial opportunities," says Jeff DeGraff, business professor at the University of Michigan. Perhaps that's why some dogs:

  • Sell for $25. Few have taken the gourmet end more seriously than The Laundry, a white-tablecloth restaurant in East Hampton, N.Y., that this summer began selling $25 hot dogs made from Wagyu beef. It's sold more than 1,000 of them since July. Some customers order $250 bottles of wine with them, says co-owner Stuart Kreisler. "There's a chicness to it," he says. "It's reverse snobbery."
  • Flaunt ethnic twists. At Dogma Grill in Miami, a top seller is the Tropicale, smothered with crushed pineapple, bacon, mozzarella cheese and special sauce. Its Burrito Dog features two grilled hot dogs wrapped in a flour tortilla.

Dogma also tested a Parisian-style dog, topped with sautéed mushrooms and blue cheese, that never quite made it. "Some flavors that work on a hamburger just don't resonate on a hot dog," says owner Jeffrey Akin.

  • Feature mustard bars. At Mandler's, The Original Sausage Co. in New York City, there's a "mustard bar" with a half-dozen varieties to spread on its 12 different hot dogs, says owner Ronnie Mandler. Want to go even more upscale? Its sausages, costing up to $6.55, can be tucked inside jumbo croissants for an extra 65 cents.

No matter how gourmet they get, however, "Most hot dogs are full of fat," says Robyn Flipse, dietitian at Nutrition Communication Services. "I'd rate hot dogs on the bottom of the food totem pole."