HOT DOG COMPANY GOES NATIONAL
America is about to get a new favorite hot dog.
At least that’s the plan of a bunch of investors who yesterday announced the purchase of the venerable Hofmann Sausage Company. The operation – held by the same family for 133 years – is one of the mainstays of the economic history of Syracuse, New York.
More to the point, Hofmann hot dogs are central to the identity of Syracuse and all of Central New York. They’ve been in the shopping carts and bellies of people from this region since Edison invented the light bulb and they started putting milk in glass bottles.
In many ways, Syracuse is Hofmann franks and coneys.
That second one is pronounced “cooneys” and it’s white. But more about that later.
The big business deal of yesterday cobbles together the oddest bunch of investors. There’s the Oneida Indian tribe, the Syracuse basketball coach, a former chief of police, the guy who brought America the Macaroni Grill, and, of course, Roger Staubach. Throw in there a business man who used to own a piece of an NBA team and you’ve pretty much got the mix.
Two themes run through the money men. They are either originally from the Syracuse area, or they’ve been given Hofmann hot dogs by someone who was. The pitch seems to have sometimes been no more complex than, “Here, eat this.”
And they were hooked.
And they’re hoping America will be, too.
Because after a century and a quarter of horizon to horizon, the plan now is to take Hofmann coast to coast.
The first piece of that begins by the end of the month, when Albertson’s customers in Texas will be able to buy Hofmann franks and coneys for their Memorial Day picnics. The second part kicks off later when a national fast-food operation based loosely on the Hofmann Hot Haus concept will roll out.
Hopefully, they will sell salt potatoes. If you’re going to go Syracuse, you might as well go all the way.
What remains to be seen is whether or not people outside the 315 will become Hofmannholics. Sometimes the appeal of a regional food is an acquired taste – sometimes they are regional for a reason, and sometimes sentimentality clouds objectivity. Sometimes our personal comfort foods are more about the memories we associate with them than any particular appeal they might actually have.
But Hofmann sausages are good.
Especially when compared to the homogenous pap that passes for hot dogs across the country. You can buy any number of brands, and they will all taste the same. Increasingly, people buy hot dogs – when they buy them at all – on the basis of price or contents. If you want kosher, chicken or beef, you get kosher, chicken or beef. Either that or you get the ones you sang about as a kid or the ones that are on sale this week.
Breaking through that blur of brands will be hard. Making Hofmann’s identifiable and desirable will be a colossal marketing feat. Communicating the uniqueness of an historic but regional brand won’t be easy.
Presumably, the success of this venture will depend more on marketing than anything else.
Because Hofmann sausages are good.
And they are part of an interesting variety of regional hot dogs sprinkled across upstate New York. Buffalo has Sahlen’s – 10 years older than Hofmann and on sale seven years before Custer fell at the Little Big Horn – Rochester has Zweigle’s – itself 132 years old and the heir to the white hot-dog legacy – and Syracuse has Hofmann.
Sahlen’s and Hofmann built on the concept of lamb casing – the intestines used to form the sausage – and produced thinner, more flexible hot dogs. Zweigle’s favored the hog casing and, therefore, made stouter, more robust hot dogs.
Zweigle’s and Hofmann each make hot dogs in two colors. Zweigle’s calls its red hots and white hots, while Hofmann goes with franks and Snappys – the latter its name for what its customers call coneys.
White hot dogs – also called porkers by some – were invented in Rochester in the early 1900s as a butcher, trying to produce a lower-priced sausage, combined uncured, less-expensive meat with stale bread as a filler to make an economy dog. The bread is gone and the meat is now choice, and the white hots sometimes cost more, but they continue to be well loved by fans of Hofmann and Zweigle’s.
But, variations and distinctive flavors aside, Sahlen’s, Zweigle’s and Hofmann have wonderfully defined their home cities for generations.
Each of these storied companies began shortly after the Civil War as simple German butcher shops, run by immigrants and embraced by flourishing cities. Each became the taste of a region and the ambassador of its people.
And each of them, until yesterday, remained owned – into the fifth generation – by the same family that started them.
That’s part of the bittersweet aspect of the Hofmann sale. There is now big money to try to pitch this product nationwide, but there is a breaking of a tradition going back to 1879. Officially, it will now be a Texas company and, officially, it will be out of the family.
What remains to be seen is if a company headquartered two time zones away can stay true to its Central New York roots and tastes. Can the oddities of regionalism stand up to the focus groups of national bland?
Will a countrywide market embrace a Syracuse tradition?
Only time will tell.
Until then, grab yourself a frank and a coney and enjoy life.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012