Dick Portillo knows a thing or two about selling hot dogs. Starting more than 40 years ago with $1,100 and a small stand, he has built a $500 million empire in Chicago.

Now he has his sights set on L.A.


"What's really amazing is that of the three largest cities in the country, the one that eats the most hot dogs is Los Angeles," said the gravel-voiced Portillo from his company's Oak Brook, Ill. headquarters.


L.A.'s hunger for foot-longs isn't just attracting Portillo's Restaurant Group Inc., which will open its first outpost in Buena Park this fall, with more locations likely to follow. Other newcomers are trying to take a bite out of the 42 million packages of hot dogs sold in Los Angeles last year. That's more than the amount consumed in New York and Chicago, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.


That same appetite consistently results in Dodger Stadium selling more dogs than any other baseball team and keeps them coming day and night at Pink's Famous Chili Dogs.


When Portillo was checking out L.A.'s hot dog scene last year, he was surprised that unlike New York and Chicago there isn't one dominant chain, even though Wienerschnitzel came close. "I saw those lines at Pink's and I knew there was a place for us," he said.


But Stephen Worth, who reviews L.A. hot dog stands on thehotdogspot.com, isn't so sure. "L.A. is made up of people from all over the place," he said. "And they each have their regional tastes of what a hot dog should be."


Hot dog ambience?


The hot dog stand has been an L.A. fixture for longer than there's been a car culture. As the city began to sprawl, fast food operators would find small, oddly shaped lots and put up cheaply made stands near busy thoroughfares and intersections.


While the high-volume, low-overhead business can be quite lucrative for operators like Portillo, an L.A. location has its challenges specifically, getting people out of their cars. Thus came gimmicks, such as Tail of the Pup, which operates out of a giant hot dog-shaped booth on San Vicente Boulevard.


At the upscale The Stand on Ventura Boulevard in Encino the only other hot dog restaurant besides Pink's to garner a listing in the Los Angeles edition of the Zagat Survey cooks decked out in white chef's uniforms prepare premium tube steaks, along with the restaurant's other dishes, while customers can sip fine wines and draft beers.


"It's probably the only hot dog stand you can take a date to and not be embarrassed," said Worth.


The Stand's owners, Murry Wishengard and Daily Grill co-founder Dick Shapiro, converted a parking lot into a landscaped gravel courtyard trying to create a true dining experience. "Even though they are in the back of a shopping center that has had some high restaurant turnover, The Stand seems to be doing very well," said Darlene Heskamp, a restaurant broker with Beitler Commercial Realty Services.


At Skooby's on Hollywood Boulevard, owners John Hooper and his brother Stephen have hired local bands to play outside the no-elbow-room establishment.


John Hooper said that to make it as an L.A. hot dog vendor, you have to give people a good reason to come back and sometimes that goes beyond food. "People have to develop a connection to hot dog stands and they need a sense of ownership," he said. "You have to give them all these little hooks to grab onto."


That may help explain the success of places like Pink's, the 66-year-old hot dog emporium near the corner of Melrose and La Brea avenues. "It's like going to Philippe's or the Original Pantry, the food almost doesn't matter," said Merrill Shindler, who is a Zagat editor and host of a weekly radio show on restaurants.


Distinctly L.A.


Still, quality counts. One of the most important parts of any hot dog is the casing, which for purists must be all-natural made of sheep's intestines and not the skinless variety found at many supermarket deli counters.


The hot dog should be grilled or steamed until the meat swells inside to make the casing so taut that upon the first bite the skin snaps and squirts the meat's juices. "That's where you get that great hot dog flavor," Worth said.


Beyond casings, some stands have been experimenting with distinctly L.A. concoctions. Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, now franchised to nearly a dozen locations, adds natural flavors to come up with creations such as the Chicken and Apple sausage.


Worth believes that Oki Dog on Fairfax Avenue has the most L.A.-styled dog two hot dogs wrapped in a burrito with chili and grilled pastrami.


"It's the dog that best reflects all the different cultures of L.A.," he said. "The owner is Japanese, but it's influenced by a combination of the Fairfax Jewish district, Mexican food and good old-fashioned American hot dogs."


As for penciling out, Wishengard said he made lots of mistakes in the first year running The Stand "idiot taxes," as he calls them but still grossed about $1.3 million on an average check of about $8. And he made a small profit.


"We're now at the point where we are making money," said Wishengard, who is looking to open four more locations. "We've done a lot of work in the last five months managing our costs."


Hooper said Skooby's is also profitable, and he's looking for a second location. The trick is to keep overhead low. "Whether I'm selling five hot dogs an hour or 50, I still have two people behind that counter," he said. "Then the business becomes profitable on the higher end. When you sell freshly squeezed lemonade for $3 a glass, there's a lot left over."

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