Growing up in a small town devoid of fast food on the outskirts of New Jersey, one of my favorite rare treats was Nathan’s. When I was a kid and got lucky enough to get out of town and go to the mall, Nathan’s was a food court staple. When I got a little older, got a car, and a job across the street from that same mall, I would take precious time out of my short lunch break to go grab some hot dogs. In particular I loved the Corn Dog Nuggets, little golden bites that still strike me as a near-perfect fast food item. So I was a little surprised and dismayed when I eventually left my bubble on the elitist hot-dog-eating East Coast and realized Nathan’s, and hot dog chains in general, weren’t everywhere.
The lack of a popular national hot dog chain is the most glaring omission in the fast food landscape. Burgers may have held the crown as the United States’ national food for decades now, but hot dogs still hold up on grills around the country as our other great cheap and easy on-the-go food. Yet while some popular chains like Sonic might offer a hot dog as part of their expansive menu, no major national fast food brand is focused on dogs as its primary product. There is no McDonald’s, or even Burger King, of hot dogs.
It makes no sense at all. It seems like an accident of history, something that was supposed to be here was just absentmindedly deleted from the code of existence. You can blame the amount of good local hot dog spots, or the ease of setting up street carts, for why chain restaurants haven’t taken up the torch, but both of those factors exist with burgers too, and burgers are everywhere.
The sheer variety of regional hot dog styles might also be pointed to as a barrier to national expansion, but the most common hot dog toppings are universally popular, and in an age where street food is celebrated so much online and across the dining landscape, the chance to explore different hot dog styles on the same menu seems like an opportunity, not a problem.
I’m not someone who pines for the corporatization of everything—in fact, it feels strange to be wishing another fast food behemoth into existence—but chain restaurants fill a valuable niche. This is especially true when the food they offer isn’t readily available in its ideal mom-and-pop form where you live. Even if you do have a good local dog spot, sometimes you just want to grab something cheap and easy when you’re driving home, and if you’re me, sometimes you really want that thing to be a hot dog.
This is already the perfect populist food, and fast food chains are the delivery system we’ve chosen for quick and affordable meals of every variety. Hot dogs and drive-thru: It’s a natural marriage that’s just waiting for the right investment firm to come along.
For better or worse, we’re living in a golden age of fast food: Newer chains like Jersey Mike’s and Raising Cane’s have been exploding around the country, fast food reviewers proliferate, and the biggest celebrities slap their names on combo meals. Fast food inspires fandoms as rabid as any band or movie franchise. There has never been a better time to start a fast food business, and hot dog lovers deserve to have a consistent, quality spot join the ranks of Taco Bell and Domino’s in roadside ubiquity.
In fact, a few existing chains, though currently small and regional, are hoping to do just that. Both Portillo’s and Wienerschnitzel, which specialize in hot dogs, have plans to go national. (Having eaten at both a number of times, I’d rank them as solid options, though Portillo’s is my preference.) Neither chain is particularly big just yet, so there’s plenty of room for an upstart to come on the scene and swipe the crown.
Hot dogs are every bit the national icon that hamburgers are, and they deserve a vaunted place in the fast food landscape. There is no doubt in my hot-dog-loving heart that a good chain would be enthusiastically embraced by the country right about now. Fast food has moved beyond hand-wringing concern and condescending mockery—it’s been embraced as an American institution, an essential part of our food culture. Hot dogs were made to be fast food, their time is now, and the country is ready for it to happen.