Dispatch: Building a Better Wiener
Kayem’s big hot dog innovation is actually a throwback. Hot dogs have been around since the 15th century, invented in either Vienna or Frankfurt (depending on your allegiance), and for the next 500 years they were made of the same basic stuff: spiced ground meat stuffed into sheep intestines, euphemistically known as “natural casings.” But then in 1925, a Chicago businessman named Erwin Freund launched a revolution when he developed an artificial casing, which could be peeled away from cooked franks before they were packaged for sale.
Freund’s “skinless” frank proved uncannily well suited for mass production. The new casings were cheap, never split while being filled, and turned out ramrod-straight franks that could be packaged by machines, which even today are stymied by the curves of natural-casing dogs. Over time, the big companies came to produce skinless franks exclusively. Encouraged by the cost savings, they searched for other efficiencies that could squeeze even more profit from their product, like switching to cheaper cuts of meat and adding fillers that extended the meat they did use. Ray Monkiewicz regards the advent of the artificial casing as a dark day in the history of the hot dog. “The product has never been the same quality since,” he says.
Today, 95 percent of the 20 billion franks sold annually in the United States are skinless. That’s a shame for connoisseurs: A natural casing makes for a juicier dog—the skin traps moisture during cooking—and biting into one produces a satisfying sui generis snap. Kayem’s new dog will be the first natural-casing frank sold nationally, and with it the company hopes to reacquaint Americans, or at least non–New Englanders, with a style of food many have all but forgotten.
If the choice of a natural casing was obvious to Kayem, the question of how its new frankfurter should taste was a bit trickier. Despite their hegemony, Ball Park and Oscar Mayer tend not to be the top-selling hot dogs in individual markets. Instead, every geographic pocket of the United States has its own favorite. That’s because a century ago, the reach of regional manufacturers was limited to the distance their unrefrigerated trucks could travel. Recipes were tailored with local customers in mind, and those differences have endured: mild pork-and-beef for New England, heavily smoked for the Midwest, spicy all-beef for the South. “People are loyal to the hot dogs they were raised on,” says Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute. “We get e-mails from people all the time who have retired and moved to Florida and suddenly hot dogs don’t taste right.”
Kayem’s first try at a national dog used a mild, all-beef recipe, but a series of tasting panels convinced the company that it wasn’t quite right. Monkiewicz and his team realized they were still stuck in a regional mindset. It’s taken 12 more adjustments to the top-secret formula, but Kayem believes it’s at last hit upon the right balance among regional flavor profiles—a frank with a touch of smoke that is at once mild enough for the Northeast and bold enough for the South. As good as the new Kayem frankfurter may be, however, it won’t be quality alone that determines its success.