If you ask Mark Reitman how Hot Dog University started, he’ll take you all the way back to 1955 when he was just eight years old. Selling food in his father’s soda fountain drug store and later becoming a teacher and hot dog salesman perfectly prepped Reitman for a post-retirement life as the founder of Hot Dog University, a program that teaches people the skills they need to open a hot dog cart.
“It’s a conglomeration of all the vending, retail and sales and knowledge I gained over my lifetime,” he told ABC NEWS. “We’re a business off entrepreneurship for those who have always romanticized owning their own business. We give them the due diligence of getting the skills and knowledge without having to spend a great amount of money.”
The first year of the program grew out of Reitman’s customers of his wildly successful hot dog cart asking how they could do the same. The first class in 2006 had 18 students, and in the eight years since, after teaming up with Vienna Beef, Hot Dog U. has trained over 800 students, with about 500 of them going on to own hot dog carts across the United States, not to mention the 300 free-standing restaurants and students from 11 foreign countries opening businesses abroad. Those are some serious statistics.
Vienna Beef, which only uses choice cuts and has esteemed customers like Shake Shack, brought Reitman and his program into their company for strategic reasons: gaining customers.
The program costs $699, but if graduates become a Vienna beef customer, they can make their tuition back. After the first 70 cases of hot dogs sold, Vienna Beef rebates $5 a case, adding up to a $350 check, Plus, graduates get a $350 credit for marketing material for hats, shirts, aprons, banners, menu boards and more, totaling a full refund of their initial investment once they become a customer.
The two-day program, mostly based in Chicago but with additional campuses in California and Arizona, starts with a tour of the hot dog factory to see how products are made and continues with a 35-page curriculum that deals with licensing, permits, equipment, insurance, marketing, customer service, sales and manufacturing. The second day includes going to a restaurant supply store to see what products and equipment they would need to purchase and working behind an actual hot dog cart or counter at a hot dog stand, which is a standing-only hot dog restaurant.
“They basically become part of the Vienna beef factory. They feel like actual family members after they’ve graduated,” Reitman said. “It’s been a win-win for Vienna Beef and me and my students.”
For those who can’t make it to Hot Dog University and have to settle for making hot dogs at home this summer, Reitman offered up some pro-tips:
- Never put a hot dog in boiling water: Reitman cautions against boiling, the most common mistake people make at home. If you want to cook your hot dogs on the stovetop, simply simmer hot dogs straight from the refrigerator in 160 degree Fahrenheit water for six to eight minutes.
- “X” marks the spot for grilling: Cut an “X” into both ends of the hot dog and taking the knife, either spiral-cut around or cut three slits in the top and the bottom. “When the dog is split like that, it’ll expand and it has a real nice char and a real nice snap and a bite to it,” Reitman said. He also advises to cook the dogs at an angle rather than parallel to the grates.
- Dress the dog, not the bun: “When everything’s on top of the dog, as soon as you take the first bite, your teeth break the skin, and the juices flow into the mouth along with the condiments on top of the hot dog, causing a tingling exhilaration to burst ecstatically upon your taste buds as you look forward to the next bite,” Reitman enthused.