The Secrets Behind Hey! Hot Dog — A Chicago Classic For More Than 60 Years
Owner BJ Uedelhofen dishes on everything, including the most controversial of condiments
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’s working when the business has lasted that long, and Joliet’s Hey! Hot Dog has remained a classic piece of the Midwestiana for more than 60 years.
InsideHook sat down with Uedelhofen, for his recs from the menu, the story behind their famous root beer, and his position on that most controversial hot dog topping: ketchup.
InsideHook: Tell us a little bit about the history of the hot dog stand.
BJ Uedelhofen: My dad and his partner started the business back in 1959. My dad bought them out in 1969. Right about the time I was 17, my dad gave me a set of keys and said, “You’re gonna start locking up at night and open it up on Saturdays.” It just kind of snowballed from there. I bought my mom and dad out 30 years ago, so I’ve been doing it for probably — well, do the math. At least 45 years, which is…pretty scary.
You’ve told us that the guy on the sign isn’t you. Who is the guy on the sign and who came up with the idea behind him? Does he have a story?
When I bought the business from my dad, it was named Hey! Hot Dog, but it didn’t really have a logo, so I had one designed. It’s not me. I would never put my face on the side. That 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 that?
In the very beginning, it was just the root beer, the barbecue sandwich, the hot dogs, bag of chips, and root beer floats. That 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 — that’s something we’ve been doing for maybe about 10, 15 years.
Can you tell me how much your prices changed? Do you remember what the original prices were back in the day?
I’m 55. The cheapest I remember a hot dog 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’s been over the years because it’s been over 60 years.
The same root beer that used to be 15 or 18 cents is $1.95. That same hot dog that was for 42 to 44 cents — something like that is now $3.05. We just raised our prices for the first time in seven years.
What’s your favorite go-to recommendation for folks to get at your shop if they’ve never been?
I’d definitely tell them to get a large black cow — just the root beer and vanilla ice cream.
I love the Polish sausage. I think it’s the best-kept secret we’ve got on our menu. We overwhelmingly sell more chili dogs than any other product we have. But I’d have to say our barbecue sandwiches are my favorite. The hot dog number two and the Polish number three, but it depends on what kind of mood I’m in.
Why do you think you’ve lasted this long?
We make our own homemade root beer. That’s our niche. We make our own homemade chili and barbecue. Nobody else knows how to make that like ours. You got to have a niche. And once you’ve got the niche, then all you gotta do is show up. And if you’re nice to the customers and you know you’re fair with them — you know, treat others like you want to be treated yourself, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Tell us a little bit about how your homemade recipe came about. Whose idea was it? How long did it take to develop?
The homemade recipe for the root beer is still the original recipe. My dad made it the way the guys he bought out from the ’50s. We still make it the same way today. We actually have equipment from the late ’50s. I still use the same stainless steel barrel and the same stainless steel long handles spoon to mix the ingredients together. The machine I have is actually a machine that blends the product that we make from 1978, which is a pretty high-tech machine right now. Nothing’s changed, actually. It’s all still the same recipes, still the same ingredients.
How long does it take you to make a batch of root beer?
If I really wanted to rifle through a batch I could probably finish it in three days. I usually have a batch going and a batch ready to use. Very seldom do we run out. I can maybe count five times that we ran out. On average, we go through a batch probably — I don’t know, every three, four days, something like that.
Tell us your feelings on ketchup on a hotdog.
It’s not taboo here. I like that. I get a lot of customers coming in thinking you just shot him in the heart if you tell him “Do you want ketchup on your hot dog?” and they go through the roof, but I would say just as many customers like ketchup as they don’t.
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