Doug Sohn Of Hot Doug's Talks Expansion, Retirement, And An 8-Figure Deal

"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.

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.

(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."

This is not to say Sohn is a workaholic slaving through 100-hour weeks with no respite like Gus Koutroulakis, the late proprietor of Pete's Famous in Birmingham who was recently profiled by Grantland's Wright Thompon. Hot Doug's is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and closes about six weeks a year. Sometimes these vacations come at predictable times such as the 4th of July or during Christmas. Others are less standard, like its closing from October 3rd through the 13th this year: "Christopher Columbus discovers America and gets a one-day holiday. Chris Columbus directs Adventures in Babysitting and gets nothing?? That's crazy talk!! THEREFORE . . . HOT DOUG'S WILL BE CLOSED FOR COLUMBUS'S DAYS," warned.

The hours and vacations enable Sohn to reconcile what he says are his biggest challenges: not becoming bored, maintaining enthusiasm, striving to continually improve — and at the very least to maintain the consistency and quality of the customer experience. "It gets a little bit harder every day," he admitted. "It's a physically and mentally demanding job. It's easier to keep up the enthusiasm when people keep showing up and seem to really like it. The business doesn't run by itself."

Sohn doesn't do it all by himself. There are eight employees — four full-time line workers and four part-time servers who rotate in shifts of two at a time. And he appreciates employees, but he doesn't want quality control issues that could arise if he let Hot Doug's stay open later than he was able to be there. At a certain point, he doesn't want to be in charge of people.

"If the deep fryer breaks, I get another deep fryer," he explained. "The deep fryer doesn't take money out of the drawer. The deep fryer doesn't say the wrong thing to the customer that you've gotta then clean up. And I don't want that call at 10:30 at night, or even 6:30 at night, 'Hey, the manager didn't show up.' Or, 'He quit, what do we do?'"

When Hot Doug's first opened at its original location in Roscoe Village in 2001 (it moved to its current spot in 2004 after a fire caused an eight-month closure and relocation), there were people who doubted Sohn's vision would be able to subsist in its format of limiting the menu to hot dogs and sausages. "My brother told me, 'Don't you think you'll have to sell hamburgers?'" Sohn related laughing, adding, "I have it on very good authority that the people at Vienna gave me a few months. They came in and they were like, 'Well, this isn't gonna last.'"

Sohn stubbornly stuck to his vision, his rationale being he didn't want or need to appeal to everybody: "I don't need to capture the population of Chicago. I need to capture .001 percent. My feeling was, 'I really want to go to the place. I can't be the only person who has these tastes.'"

And Sohn has exceeded that .001 percent target. This past July 23rd, Amy Winehouse died and House Speaker John Boehner walked out of debt ceiling talks in Congress the day before. There had also been a flood in the Hot Doug's basement that morning and The Trib's second most prominent headline was, "Hot Doug's Temporarily Closed Due to Flooding." The restaurant has been covered extensively by the Chicago media and featured nationally in the The New York Times and USA Today as well as on Travel Channel's Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

Sohn regularly turns down solicitations for expansion and has forgone multi-million dollar offers. "The part of the job that I like, I couldn't do if I had more than one, or had expanded hours, or was bigger, or franchised — that holds no interest for me." He continued unwaverlingly, noting that he was miserable in past positions that he held because of his income, "The reason to do it would be purely for the money. One of few rules that I live by is to not do things for the money. I've got enough. I didn't go into this thinking it was a million dollar idea. I went into this thinking, 'I kind of want to go open a hot dog place and listen to my records all day.'"

Sohn pauses, searching for the precise words. The American Dream is often characterized by the hunger for more, but his dream involves a more comparatively distinct balance between labor and leisure. "The goal is to create this place," Sohn continues. "I don't want a big house in the suburbs. Or nice suits. Or fancy cars... There is nothing I feel like I'm really missing. It's like, 'OK, so I can buy more stuff.' You know what? I have a nice TV, I have cookware, I have good knives. Those are the things I really need. I want to go home at the end of the day and use those things. Restaurants can be all-consuming."

With more locations, Sohn would have more responsibility — which he consistently says he does not want — and less control over the quality and consistency of his product. "If I want to own 10 of something, I don't want it to be restaurants," he says, stressing that it is special for him to preside over a restaurant that is unique as opposed to commoditized. "Then, it's not going to be Hot Doug's. It's going to be 10 cookie-cutter locations. Everything would be much more computerized because it would have to be. Then, it's different." He acknowledges, though, that he will never say never. "Eight figures, I'm not turning down. There does come a point."

Sohn is not sure how long he will continue operations and does not have a succession plan — he is taking it year by year. "I like providing lunch to people," he says, laughing. "It's cool. I can take six to seven weeks of vacation. I'm in control, to the extent that I can be in control."

And as long as Sohn keeps at it, Hot Doug's will remain a unique and special lunch destination for Chicago citizens and tourists alike.

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