Poland has its kielbasa, Germany its bratwurst and France has cornered the market for saucissons. But the hot dog is an all-American classic, as closely associated with the Stars and Stripes as apple pie, rock ’n’ roll and dangerously lax gun legislation.
“The hot dog itself is an American icon,” says Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. “It only rivals the hamburger for the most quintessentially American thing you can eat.” It’s fitting, then, that it takes pride of place each Fourth of July, a time when the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC) predicts Americans will eat some 150 million hot dogs on Independence Day alone — just a fraction of the estimated 20 billion hot dogs they say are consumed each year.
And yet, for all of its popularity and iconography, the hot dog is conspicuously absent from the menus of the nation’s biggest fast-food chains. It’s not for lack of trying: McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King have all introduced hot dogs to their U.S. menus over the years, only to be met with lukewarm to damning public response. (The New York Post called Burger King’s short-lived 2016 attempt, promoted with an embarrassing campaign starring Snoop Dogg, “a disgusting disgrace.”)
Considering both the hot dog’s popularity and the success of its cousin, the hamburger, this absence is particularly puzzling. As Yale historian Paul Freedman points out, they’re both variants of ground meat traditions brought to America by European immigrants; they were both initially popularized in the 19th century; and they’re both served in speciality buns for increased portability. Nathan’s Famous, America’s first fast-food chain and the earliest hot dog chain, started in New York in 1916, just five years before the first hamburger chain, White Castle, was founded in Kansas.
“It would seem that hot dogs ought to be popular enough for there to be big chains [selling them],” Freedman says.
So what keeps going wrong?
According to Mike von Massow, a professor at the University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, the issues are largely logistical: While burgers and hot dogs may have their similarities, the realities of preparing and serving them differ greatly. “Most of these quick service restaurants are set up to grill burgers, and grilling a hot dog is more difficult than grilling a burger,” he says.
For example, the hot dog’s cylindrical shape means it cooks less evenly and is thus “more work (to cook) and also harder to get right” than a flat burger, with its easily standardized cooking times. And while a burger is still pretty enjoyable up to 15 minutes off the grill, and thus fine to pre-prepare during busy periods, the hot dog’s window of deliciousness is far more limited. (“The hot dogs sweat and the buns soak it up. It doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it’s the truth.”)
“If you think about the convenience store hot dog that we’re used to seeing, they either microwave them or [they’re warmed on] those rolling machines. None of us expect a good experience from that. In those circumstances, we just want fuel,” he explains. “Most of these big burger chains don’t want to just give you fuel. They want you to have a good experience.”
There’s also the issue of personalization. Allowing customers to add their own toppings after purchase can disrupt a restaurant’s flow and processes, and because Americans are so divided on the right way to eat a hot dog, deciding on an offering that will please people across the country is a near impossible challenge. “Turning the hot dog into a national [fast food] icon is difficult because it has all these regional interpretations that people feel very passionately about,” Chandler explains. “You can seek out a hamburger anywhere and you’re basically getting the same thing, whereas if you go to Chicago and you dare to ask for ketchup with your hot dog, they will throw you out.”
But the barriers to the fast-food hot dog go beyond the merely practical: There are massive cultural obstacles to overcome. “There’s something about the hot dog in the public imagination that kind of lends itself to leisure, and fast food doesn’t always necessarily reflect a leisurely lifestyle,” Chandler says.
Eric Mittenthal, president of the NHDSC and vice president of public affairs at the North American Meat Institute, suggests Americans’ indifference is in part due to the fact that, to most, hot dogs just aren’t considered restaurant fare. “We did a polling question on this back in 2016 on people’s favorite places to eat hot dogs and found that ‘inside my house’ (30 percent) or ‘in my backyard’ (20 percent) were people’s favorite places to eat hot dogs. Sporting events and tailgating were next, and restaurants were chosen by just 2 percent.”
Contextual designations like these are hard to shake, and leave us disinclined to try items we’re familiar with in unfamiliar settings. “The context is part of the experience — and we have these deeply embedded expectations of what a hot dog is. It’s harder to reposition something when it already has that sort of firm position in our minds as to where we eat them,” von Massow explains
Freedman says the fact that we don’t associate hot dogs with fast food has “as much to do with the hamburger’s victory as the hot dog’s defeat.” In the first half of the 20th century, burger chains like White Castle and McDonald’s aggressively and inventively targeted the on-to-go diner and the growing driving class, using gimmicks, restaurant design innovation and mass media to position the hamburger as a convenient, delicious, family-friendly option you could build a full meal around, and to position themselves as the best place to get them. Without comparably effective marketing of its own, the fast-food hot dog didn’t stand a chance. (It’s notable that the most memorable hot dog campaigns of the last century promoted not a restaurant, but the Oscar Mayer brand of hot dogs you make yourself at home.)
Does this mean that, more than a century after the advent of fast food, and after decades of failed attempts at popularization, we’ll never see the rise of the fast-food hot dog? Not necessarily. “Hot dogs are just so popular and so iconic,” Chandler says. “Somebody has to be able to get it right.”