Outside the Vienna Beef factory on Chicago's North Side, class is in session. Students are gathered around Mark Reitman, a self-proclaimed Ph.D., or "professor of hot dogs."
"There is a science to selling hot dogs," says Reitman. "I teach the kinds of things that the colleges and trade schools don't teach. I teach real life experience."
The two-day course is called "Hot Dog University," and for $400, Reitman can teach you the ABCs of being a hot dog vendor. These days, with the economy shedding jobs, classes are nearly full. Enrollment has doubled since last year.
"We've had stockbrokers. We've had people in the mortgage industry come to us," says Reitman. "It's like the perfect storm, and it's coming right into us, right now."
I decide to sign up, and after donning a hat and apron, my fellow students and I immediately find hot dog vending is tougher than it looks. Our $6,000 cart is tough to maneuver. Water jugs are leaking. And the propane tank used to heat the dogs has a faulty connector.
When we finally get the gas flowing, high winds blow out our burner.
"And this ends today's class," Reitman jokes.
Eventually, the problems are ironed out, and it's on to the tricks of the trade. Reitman shows us proper handling and cleanliness. To avoid having to constantly put on and take off the required plastic gloves, he suggests grouping customers' orders and taking their money all at once rather than separately.
As for the condiments, it's easier to put them on a separate self-serve table.
"'It's quicker, it's less messy, and some people like to put a ton of pickles on," says Reitman. "Well, let them put all the pickles they want on."
Soon, it's time to put our new skills to the test. It's the lunch rush, and customers are walking up to the cart. I complete three orders in a row without a single dropped dog, wrapper mishap or broken bun. Still, I think I'll keep my day job.
But fellow student Adrian Mociran has a different plan. He and his friend Mark Jordan came to Hot Dog University all the way from Tennessee. Jordan recently was laid off from his job at a chemical plant, and Mociran is growing weary of his real estate job.
"Trying to sell real estate in a market like today is not too great of an idea," Mociran tells us, so he and Jordan have decided to give hot dog vending a shot.
In fact, a year-round hot dog vendor can earn a six-figure income, says Reitman, a retired school counselor.
Is the hot dog industry recession-proof?
"I think it is," says Reitman. "Hot dogs are an emotional food. Everyone in the world has a favorite hot dog or favorite place that they get a hot dog from."
In this dog-eat-dog economy, that's certainly something to chew on.