Ever since Chicago hot dog institution Hot Doug’s opened 14 years ago, it’s been the fancified franks (think alligator sausage with crayfish-shrimp remoulade; baked ham sausage with prickly pear mustard), legendary duck fat fries and owner Doug Sohn’s warm hospitality that have been winning over the hearts and, as evidenced by upward of nine hour wait times, the personal days of customers. Chances are that wait will be longer than ever on October 3, the shop’s last day in operation before Sohn closes its doors forever — a decision he announced in May, to Chicago’s chagrin. Last week, we chatted with Sohn about his life as a tubesteak pioneer — who he gets most excited to see in line, what he’s looking forward to on October 4 (the day after closing) and why no one can put a price tag on his 45-person capacity corner fixture.
The obvious first question. Why close?
Me just wanting to — that’s really it. It just feels right to me. It’s been an extraordinary run, beyond any sort of expectations. I was originally hoping to be open for six months. My feeling is that the time is right to do this now and be able to look at it from beginning to end. It’s really nice to be able to do something because you can, and not because you have to.
So then, what is next for you?
Definitely not a restaurant. Food, maybe. I’m going to take some time off, relax, travel a little bit and then figure out how to make a living.
What aspect of your day-to-day routine will you miss most — and least?
The thing I’ll miss the most is talking with customers, seeing regulars and meeting new people. I’ll miss my purveyors. The business relationships have been really fun, and I’m friends with a few of them now. But the restaurant business is physically hard. I’m not on the line, but we’re standing all day. It’s hot, and there’s pressure. It’s a physically draining profession.
What’s your busiest day on record?
It was two Saturdays ago. We went until 9:15 p.m. My guess is that we probably served 900 people that day.
How are you able to accurately quote wait times for waits that range from five to nine hours? Do you have mile markers?
We have a staff member who comes out and says, “it’s four hours from here, or five hours from here” and one of the customers once gave her some grief and asked, “well, how do you know?” We’ve been joking about what answers to give. We’ve come up with, “well we’ve hired a team of physics professors from MIT and we triangulated the Hubble Telescope and the Greenwich Mean clock,” or, “well, it’s four hours from here, but it will be about 20 minutes if no one in front of you orders food — then it’ll be much shorter.” Or, “I don’t know, maybe it’s because we’ve done this before and we know that at this point, it’s how long it is.” We’re pretty spot on, too — within 15-20 minutes of where we are.
What are the most creative ways you’ve seen people pass the time?
It’s the one aspect of the restaurant I’ve never known about because I’m inside waiting on all of them. I do know that a lot of people will go down to Honey Butter Fried Chicken and get food while they’re waiting, which I think is awesome. I’m also waiting for my commission check from Honey Butter, which I will actually take in fried chicken and bourbon. Someone told me that someone was playing the bongos the other day. People bring their lawn chairs.
I don’t mean to be too philosophical about this, but it’s one of the rare occasions when people are with people. You’re with your friends, and you’re kind of obligated to have human interaction. I get the sense that people gravitate towards that, and, generally speaking, seem to be genuinely happy about it.
Most memorable encounters once folks make it to the head of the line?
There was one guy who did actually pass out in line. It wasn’t from heat — he just passed out. An ambulance was called, but he refused to be taken, stayed in line, and came in. He had a nice scrape on his head. I was like, “OK, that may not have been the wisest move, but thank you.” Oh, and there have been a lot of selfies. I’ve been in a lot of selfies lately.
What about famous people?
Dave Kingman, who was a Chicago Cub back in the '70s when I was a kid. When he came in, that was very exciting for me. For the most part, though, it’s the regulars. There’s a group of guys that plays softball together, and they come in every single Friday. Rain, snow, blazing sun — every Friday, anywhere from four to eight of them are here. One of my favorite customers was a security guard at Truman College and came every day. He retired, so now it’s once a week. He doesn’t pay anymore. We have these minute and a half long conversations, but all of the time, about sports. In the summertime we talk about the Cubs, in the wintertime we talk about the Bears. Those kinds of things are just incredibly cool.
You’ve clearly been wildly successful, but you’ve resisted expansion of your space or franchising. Are those decisions part of a master marketing plan, or are you just sticking to your guns?
I set out to do this. I set out to create this restaurant, this menu, this vibe, this price point. The goal wasn’t to have 10 of these, or to make a million dollars. I wanted to do this singular thing, and I wanted to try to do it as best as I could. I’ve been told all of the time, “you’re crazy not to sell it” or “you’re crazy not to franchise it.” Just like I was told I was crazy to open it in the first place, and crazy to do a lot of things — and it seems to have turned out OK. Just the other day someone said, “you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.” And I was like, “yeah, I’ve done that before, and I’m sure I’ll do it again. But it’s my table.” People are sort of indignant about it, and I’m like, “I’m not taking your money, what do you care?” This is my decision, and I’m content with it.
How are you planning to go out with a bang on October 3?
I have the same goal we’ve had in all of the years we’ve done this: Open at 10:30 a.m., sell hot dogs, and close. I don’t plan anything different that day — a couple of extra staff members, but that’s about it.
What’s the first thing you’ll do on October 4?
I hope to sleep in. It would be nice. I have a feeling I’ll be really tired. It’s been a lot of adrenaline and caffeine in the last 14 years.
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