In a country where hot dogs are the most famous (and most consumed) form of sausage, and in a city that's especially known for them, the Vienna Beef factory is situated rather humbly near a nondescript intersection on the North Side of Chicago. But inside, it's far from humble; rough estimates put the number of hot dogs made inside that nondescript building every day at above of seven hundred thousand.
Back when I started Sausage City, I launched the column with a map of where in Chicago a serious eater could find a natural casing hot dog (because a natural casing hot dog's "snap" when you bite into it is the way a hot dog ought to be enjoyed). When we put together that list, Vienna Beef was at the center of our efforts; they helped us out with spreadsheets and distribution lists and seemed truly excited about the idea. As a company that was founded in 1893, they've grown to love hot dog—and more than that, their name has become almost synonymous with them.
And so it makes sense that someday, this column would come full circle to Vienna Beef.
My factory visit began mid-morning with a strict series of regulatory steps: removal of all watches, cell phones, bags, then a regulation smock, hairnet, and hand wash. This also meant absolutely no cameras. Vienna takes their food safety extremely seriously; about 9 months ago they achieved what's known as SQF certification, an international certification that goes far above and beyond local regulations. They are very, very proud of achieving this, especially as a place that make hot dogs in the city which inspired The Jungle.
The first thing you see inside the Vienna factory is a staggering long line of meat cutters working along a conveyer belt: they're working in tandem to trim the thousands of pounds of brisket that come ferrying by all day long. That brisket is bound for curing into corned beef, another of Vienna's products, but the trimmed fat is the first ingredient in Vienna's hot dogs. Brisket fat is a flavorful fat, and gives some secret to what makes Vienna dogs good.
Along with the brisket trim, Vienna uses very lean bull and cow meat for their hot dogs, usually from cuts like the rump, eye, or round. It comes in at about 7-8% lean, which is very low, and it's then mixed in a secret ratio with the brisket fat, ready to be ground, seasoned, emulsified, and cased, then smoked, cooled, packaged, and shipped.
Of course, quite a bit happens in that time. First, the meat is sent into highly sophisticated machines which get the ratios of meat to fat just right, then it's transferred to a giant emulsifying machine with spices and shaved ice.
But perhaps the coolest part is the casing. Most hot dogs are of the "skinless" variety that you see in most grocery stores. These are mechanically piped into plastic tubing with a stripe down the middle (the stripe helps workers notice if there's breakage); after smoking, the tube is peeled away, leaving the common grocery store hot dog with its balloon-like crinkle at the ends.
The natural casing dogs must be more carefully manufactured, as it's much more at risk of breaking. They're still stuffed using a machine, but they're hand-threaded and hand-twisted into links. (It's no wonder that natural casing hot dogs are more expensive than the skinless counterparts—casings, and the labor, add cost.)
Next, the dogs are transferred into roaring, terrifyingly large rooms of 100% hickory hot smoke until they reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit, then cooled down with a brine shower (except the natural casings, which can't take the drastic temperature change; they come down in temperature more slowly). They're packaged in an adjacent room, passing through metal detectors and several other stages of inspection before heading into boxes.
Though the Vienna factory is fairly large, I was actually struck by how compact it really is. When you see hot dogs in every grocery store, you think they must come from massive, anonymous-looking facilities far away from where anyone lives. But Vienna makes hot dogs in the heart of Chicago.
I, for one, will never drive by again without pausing to think for just a moment about what goes on inside.