Only a few years after Aaron Wolfson opened Chicago’s Dog House, he began taking his show on the road as a vendor at festivals. His first—about 10 or 11 years ago, he says—was a sausage fest started by friends of his.
“It was incredible,” Wolfson says. “It was so busy and we did very, very well.”
He expected similar numbers at the next festival he participated in, but quickly learned not all of these events would be the same.
“One year could be really good, another year could be not as good or just awful,” he says. “It’s just the way it is.”
The uncertainty hasn’t stopped him from bringing the Dog House to more fests each year and making the booth a staple at many outdoor Chicago shows. Even this past weekend at Pitchfork Music Festival, the rain made for a slow few days of business for Wolfson and his crew. But there’s no time to dwell on the weather: The team only really has one day of rest between packing up from one fest and gearing up for the next weekend’s events.
In a decade of working music, street, sporting, and other festivals, Wolfson is pretty even-keeled about his approach to the experience. The weather is a wildcard, and you might flub on ordering and staffing. But the opportunity to hang outside during the summer months and potentially run into a certain famous DJ? Not a bad payoff. We spoke with Wolfson about what it’s like inside the tent when dozens of hungry customers are lined up in front of it.
The Takeout: Does your team work at a lot of music festivals?
Aaron Wolfson: We do all types of festivals, music festivals, street festivals, food-focused festivals, concessions at sporting events, outdoor catering events—we do it all.
TO: Do you have a favorite music festival to work?
AW: I really, really enjoy the Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza. Pitchfork this year wasn’t as good as it was last year, but every year is different. That’s how it goes—nothing’s guaranteed. One year it can be really good and another year it can be gray and rainy. And that for sure hurts attendance and the festival itself.
TO: When do you usually see the biggest customer rush at music festivals?
AW: Probably after 3 p.m. At Lollapalooza we get hit with a massive, massive rush that lasts for, like, three to four hours straight, and that’s usually from 4 to 8, or 3 to 7.
TO: What are the most popular items that you sell?
AW: We do the traditional Chicago-style hot dog, we do a vegan Chicago hot dog, a Chicago-style Polish, which is the Original Maxwell. And then our signature item is the Chance the Snapper, which is our smoked alligator sausage. We do other exotic sausages like rattlesnake sausage and duck sausage and wild boar bratwurst—all sorts of stuff. We try to be a little bit different than a traditional hot dog booth at a festival.
TO: What are the perks of working at a music fest?
AW: During the downtime you get to see a good show or just be outside. It’s summertime in Chicago! It’s always nice to be outside instead of being stuck inside a restaurant. You get to meet new people. It’s just a different environment doing outdoor events. It definitely can be stressful, but it’s pretty easygoing, pretty laid back.
TO: Have you ever needed to play security guard when fans have gotten too rowdy as they approach your booth?
AW: It’s been pretty chill. Maybe there’s the occasional over-served fan, but we’ve never had any major issues.
TO: What does prep look like?
AW: This year has been crazy. We’ve been doing back-to-back festivals every single weekend. When we’re done with one festival we have maybe one day to wind down. Today was a wind-down day, and I’m going back into the restaurant now to get going for this weekend.
For a Friday/Saturday/Sunday festival, we’ll start prepping maybe Wednesday, Thursday for sure: go to our storage facility, grab our equipment on Thursday so it’s all loaded up in our van. Music festivals are usually pretty good about giving us a day to set up before the actual event, which is nice.
TO: Do you have any tips for festival attendees—other than actually tipping—when they approach food and drink vendors at these events?
AW: At certain times we can get hit with quite a big rush, so be patient with the order process. We’re usually pretty fast with getting orders off for people so they can go enjoy the show and not have to wait in line for a long time. It’s really important to us to be efficient.
But also, you should try something new. We have new stuff on the menu, different stuff than your hamburger or your chicken tenders. We’re doing some exotic sausages, so be open-minded to try it. A lot of people will have different stuff that you normally wouldn’t find at a restaurant.
TO: Have you had a lot of folks come to your storefront after they tried your food at one of these fests?
AW: Absolutely. Taste of Chicago is one of those events where I get a lot of customers coming in after.
TO: What were some of the big early lessons when you started working festivals?
AW: Watch your product. Watch what you’re ordering. Watch your staff. It’s really tough getting that formula down right, because you don’t know what to expect. Weather is huge. You cannot control the weather, and that’s a major factor.
TO: I imagine the breaks you take at festivals are a little nicer than a typical restaurant shift break.
AW: Sometimes during the downtime you get to take a break and wander off or hang back, have a drink and just enjoy where you’re at.
TO: If you were to picture your perfect music festival situation, what would you order, and what would be the band or the artist you would want to watch while eating it?
AW: That’s a tough question. I’m a purist when it comes to eating hot dogs and sausages, so I’d probably eat a Chicago hot dog. And we weren’t vending it this year, but 2007 Lollapalooza I saw Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem. Probably one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
TO: Have you met any celebrities while working these music festivals?
AW: I met Skrillex a long time ago. But everything is such a blur and is so fast and spontaneous.
TO: Did Skrillex get a hot dog?
AW: No, I just met him in passing.
TO: What do you think he would have ordered? The vegan hot dog?
AW: I could see him being vegan.
[Editor’s note: We have zero proof that Skrillex is vegan.]