Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Vienna Beef Factory Tour: How hot dogs are made

If you think that an intimate look inside a Chicago hot dog factory would make me think twice about eating one, you'd be wrong. Surprised?

Today Josh and I took the Vienna Beef factory tour. After removing our watches and jewelry and donning hair nets and white butcher coats, we stepped onto the factory floor for a no-holds-barred view of how hot dogs are made. This was no Jungle. We saw men speedily debone beef briskets; we peered into giant mixers as they blended ground brisket fat with bright red bull meat; and we viewed bucket after giant bucket of the pale paste formed when the two beef products are pureed with corn syrup, salt and seasonings. I watched as vats full of hot dog paste were fed into casings and wheeled into a vast smoke room to be cooked.

We learned about the differences between natural and uncased sausages and found out the demand for the former comes from hot dog stands and the latter from grocery stores and small children. Did you know natural casings are sheep guts? They import them from New Zealand. Another fun fact: when the plant moved to its current location in the 1970s, the taste of the meat changed slightly. The remedy? Bringing in the old smoky bricks from the old South Side factory.

I also discovered Vienna Beef has a special recipe just for Portillo's that contains more nitrates and water for a longer dog with a juicier, snappier bite. (I still refuse to eat there.)

Our guide, the former production manager, answered all of our questions without hesitation. When asked how the recession had affected sales, he said demand stayed flat. Vienna Beef hot dogs are mostly sold in the Chicago area and their products are more expensive than the competition (but worth it, according to him as they use higher quality ingredients). He freely admitted hot dogs were unhealthy ("Me, if I want fast food, I usually go to Chipotle"), and concurred that the standard dogs were a lot tastier than the natural, nitrate-free versions.

The factory was immaculately clean and smelled pretty good--especially the area near the smoke room and in the soup room, where 3 giant kettles were cooking chili. You won't find Vienna Beef's soups on your grocery store shelves--they're sold in giant containers to restaurants and food service outlets. Their chili, for example, is served at Culver's.

After circling the entire factory floor, our guide led us upstairs to the quality control room. There we joined a group of employees sampling all of the items that had been made that day, from pastrami and corned beef to cased and uncased hot dogs, Polish sausages and soup. Our appetite whetted, we headed to the factory cafeteria (which is open to the public) for a free lunch of hot dog, fries and a soft drink.

Vienna Beef only started offering factory tours in May, and according to the marketing representative we talked to, demand has been overwhelming. There are a lot of hot dog lovers out there, and while no one is going to convince anyone hot dogs are health food, it's a brilliant PR move to show that Vienna Beef hot dogs have nothing to hide. There's no "mystery meat," no unsanitary conditions, no ill-treated workers.

And the tour? It's free.