When Doug Sohn was working as a cookbook editor in 1998, he and three friends set out to evaluate Chicago's hot dogs stands. Little did they know what would develop from their food safaris.
For lunch, they would go out, order four hot dogs and four fries, and then head back to the office to write short reviews of their experiences. In doing so, they visited more than 40 restaurants in the course of two years.
“One of the things I quickly realized was that the Chicago-style hot dog has this reputation around the world, but that most spots were doing a C-minus job,” Sohn told a crowd of listeners at a Skokie lecture last Sunday.
At many restaurants, hot dogs had become less important than other items, such as gyros and pizza puffs. As a result, the owners started serving frankfurters with cheaper ingredients, such as lower quality mustard, tomatoes and sausage, he said.
Sohn began considering how he would operate a hot dog stand, borrowing ideas from places that did it the best.
“It got to the point that--with the combination of the idea forming and getting a little bored at work--I realized I could do this," he recalled, "and if I’m going to do this, I should do it sooner rather than later.”
The Deerfield native bought a space and opened Hot Doug’s in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood in January of 2001. More than 10 years after first opening, his restaurant has been named one of the top 50 restaurants on the planet by Bon Appetit and has been dubbed the best place to get a hot dog by Citysearch Chicago and Time Out Chicago.
Sohn discussed the challenges and pleasures of owning a restaurant Sunday at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago in Skokie, speaking before a crowd that nearly filled the organization's auditorium. His lecture was titled “The Business of Selling Hot Dogs," of course.
“I came up with this idea last year of highlighting jobs, and I’ve eaten at Hot Doug's and my friend’s a regular at Hot Doug's," said Matt Cole, a member of the ethical society's programming committee, in reference to the World at Work series, which features people with unusual jobs.
"We took a long shot and my friend asked Doug if he’d come,” said Cole.
Sohn told the audience his mom hated cooking and he grew up on meatloaf and broiled chicken. He didn’t become interested in pursuing a career in the food industry until he went to New York for college, where he expanded his palette and started watching Julia Child and other cooking shows.
When he decided to enroll at Kendall College, then located in Evanston, he was one of the older students and was mostly looking for a way to learn how to cook and put off pursuing a career.
“Most chefs tell this story about cooking in the kitchen with their grandmothers or working as a dishwasher as a kid,” Sohn said. “I had none of that.”
Before landing the job as a cookbook editor in 1995, he worked as a cook in restaurants and did catering and corporate dining events. However, he found that working as part of a line of chefs was brutal.
“The best explanation is getting punched in the head for 12 hours and then here’s a very bad paycheck,” Sohn said during his lecture.
When he started Hot Doug’s, Sohn didn’t expect it to last more than a year. He said half of all restaurants fail in the first six months and three quarters fail by the end of the year.
At first the spot’s main clientele were Lane Tech High School students. After their lunch break was over the place would be so empty that he and his one co-worker would sit around and play cards. After a year and a half, the Chicago Sun-Times named Hot Doug’s the best hot dog spot in the city. More write-ups followed, including one in The New York Times.
In 2004, two weeks after the New York Times article, the building in Roscoe Village that housed his restaurant burned down due to an apartment fire.
“Really, I wasn’t going to do it again,” Sohn said about his feelings after the blaze. “I thought this was a sign to do something else.”
But customers kept asking Sohn when he was going to reopen and he wound up purchasing a space at 3324 N. California Ave., in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, which has been Hot Doug's home since 2005.
In addition to serving the classic Chicago-style dog, the restaurant sells sausages made with more exotic ingredients such as kangaroo, ostrich and foie gras. The foie gras put Sohn in conflict with a 2006 city ban on the food made from duck or goose liver.
He refused to stop serving it at his restaurant, and when the health department sent him a warning letter he framed it and put it on his counter. Eventually he was fined and stopped serving foie gras. But now that Chicago's City Council repealed the law in 2008, the dish is back on the menu.
“People say you fought the law and you won,” Sohn said. “I said I ignored the law and won.”
Despite the long lines of diners that come to Hot Doug’s every day, Sohn said he will not open a second location.
“I did not go into this thinking this is a million-dollar idea,” Sohn said. “The part of the job that I love I couldn’t do if I even had two restaurants.”
Hot Doug’s is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and Sohn is there the entire time serving customers.
“You have literally 35,000 choices to go to in the city of Chicago,” he said. “You chose me. I’m incredibly flattered that you made this effort.”
Sohn was the second presentation in the World of Work series, whose first guest speaker was retired Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky. Faith Avner, director of advanced planning at Chicago Jewish Funerals, takes the microphone on April 17.
Cole said he was very happy with Sohn's presentation.
“I thought he was fabulous," Cole said. "He’s an incredibly personable guy. He shared that even with how successful he is and with the fame he's garnered that it’s hard work."