Doug Sohn of Hot Doug's Talks Expansion, Retirement, and an 8-Figure Deal

Staff Writer
A Chicago hot-dog icon talks about the philosophy behind his success and the future
Hot Doug's, a Chicago hot dog institution.
Arthur Bovino

Hot Doug's, a Chicago hot dog institution.

“The goal is to create this place.” — Doug Sohn

On a rainy, late September Wednesday at about 1 p.m., on the corner of Roscoe and California in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood, an unfamiliar scene at a well-touristed destination goes unseen. As opposed to the normal line stretching almost a block down Roscoe, the Hot Doug’s line extends only to the inside door. Where one would typically wait an hour or more, today it takes only 10 minutes reach the counter.

As always, orders are taken by Doug Sohn, an affable Jewish man in his late 40s whose face bears a slight stubble and black and orange, thick-rimmed glasses. “You got it!” says Sohn, whose establishment embodies much more of his likeness than his name. It's the same enthusiastic exclamation with each order, an attempt to make each customer feel uniquely welcome and appreciated.

Every detail of the Hot Doug’s experience, from the menu to the ambiance, is crafted from Sohn’s personality and vision. One wall reads, “There are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats,’ my friend,” in big block letters, attributing the quote to Secret Robbie.

The menu features 11 dogs and sausages ranging from "The Dog," a typical Chicago-style hot dog with all the trimmings, to the Norm Crosby, a Thuringer sausage made from beef, pork, and garlic. There is a specials board with about 10 to 12 specialty sausages. The board, with the exception of a foie gras duck sausage that is a constant presence (left), features about 12 exotic sausages and is staggered such that it completely turns over every two weeks.

 

The menu on the wall at Hot Doug's.

Today, specials include a bacon cheeseburger beef sausage with Coca-Cola barbecue sauce and maple Cheddar; a BLT bacon-jalapeño sausage with avocado cream, iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and asiago cheese; and a ginger-spiked rabbit sausage with red pepper mayo and crème de brie.

Hot Doug’s serves its famous duck-fat french fries on Fridays and Saturdays. While its main menu is delicious, its items can be replicated elsewhere. The specials' flavors and ingredients, however, differentiate Hot Doug’s. The normal menu ranges in price from $2 to $4 per order and the special sausages are $6 to $10. It is the type of place where you extend yourself monetarily and calorically because you don’t know when the next time will be that you will be able to carve out hours for lunch on a weekday or Saturday to soak up the experience.

Using an independent middleman as a runner for fresh supplies from downtown Chicago markets, Sohn sources ingredients from about 20 different suppliers and has attained a status where purveyors of specialty sausages and cheeses reach out to him with samples. “The things that require less and less work on my end, I like more and more,” Sohn laughs.

In the nearly 11 years since starting Hot Doug’s, Sohn has been at the counter taking orders every day. “I know that people are making a concerted effort to come to Hot Doug’s. It’s not like ‘Oh I’m shopping on Michigan Avenue and I’m hungry,’” Sohn says. “It seems the right thing to do.” And while he doesn't interpret his cult popularity to mean that he belongs in the cadre of the nation's celebrity chefs, he adds, “I think the person whose name is on the restaurant should be there.” (Sohn, right, poses with one of The Daily Meal's editors.)

Still, he closes on Sundays and is only open until 4 p.m. every day. The fact is, he worries that the quality and brand he has worked so carefully to build could be compromised if Hot Doug’s was open for days or even hours that he is not there to oversee its operations. “An owner sees things differently than the employee," he explained. "I’m not blaming or criticizing the employee. It’s just sort of the nature of the position. An employee is looking at something differently than I am.”