The US States Where Hot Dogs Are Legally Sandwiches

The hot dog's status as a sandwich — whether it is one or not — remains a hotly debated topic. Granted, this iconic American favorite closely resembles the traditional definition of a sandwich, which typically involves an array of meat and fixings bookended by slices of bread. However, more commonly, it features buns instead of sliced bread.

For some states, that's enough. California, Colorado, and New York have all legally declared the hot dog to be a sandwich. New York gave the ketchup and mustard-covered wieners legal status in 2019 when its Department of Taxation and Finance declared in a bulletin that hot dogs should be taxed like other sandwiches. This placed the hot dog on the same legal footing as classic sandwiches like BLTs, Reubens, and club sandwiches.

Of course, codifying the hot dog as a sandwich isn't the same as endorsing its sufficiency as a meal. The California State Board of Equalization, for example, stopped short of calling it a substitute for lunch or dinner, asserting, "The sale of hot dog and hamburger sandwiches, even when served with beverages, from sandwich stands or booths where neither chairs nor tables are provided for customers, does not constitute a 'meal.'" But the hot dog's sandwich bona fides are written into law in the Golden State.

Why the hot dog meets the legal definition of a sandwich

What elements go into defining what makes a sandwich? According to Merriam-Webster — no novice when it comes to definitions — a sandwich is "two or more slices of bread[,] or a split roll having a filling in between." This definition is broad enough to include hot dogs, the dictionary-maker concludes.

The legal definitions of a sandwich, meanwhile, are much more variable. The state of Colorado not only claimed the hot dog as a sandwich in 2016, but also granted the same status to frozen pizza and chicken wings. That seems a bit too liberal a definition of a sandwich, although, in Colorado's defense, the term was taken to mean single-serving foods that qualify bars as eligible to serve alcohol.

In California and New York, tax status for sandwiches was at issue, and thus a definition was required. New York was also broad in its approach, although not as broad as Colorado. It allowed that both closed and open-faced sandwiches were legally valid varieties, served either hot or cold. Torpedoes, hoagies, and grinders were all defined as acceptable sandwich styles, as was the hot dog and any other sausage or frank encased in a bun.

Dissenting opinions on the hot dog's sandwich status

U.S. states aren't the only ones interested in whether the hot dog meets the definition of a sandwich. Major names in the hot dog world are every bit as invested in the polarizing debate. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, for example, declared in 2015 that the hot dog transcends the sandwich category, writing that it "is truly a category unto its own."

What's motivating the pushback and calls for hot dog exceptionalism? The likely reason is taxes. Sandwiches sold in New York, for example, are subject to sales tax (a rate of 8.875%), and that includes hot dogs. This legal categorization impacts Nathan's Famous — a restaurant chain legendary for its hot dogs (and its annual hot dog eating contest), which has over a dozen restaurant locations in New York — as well as other hot dog purveyors in the Empire State.