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Pleasant Prairie, WI: The Art of the Cart

If you want to know how to hawk a hot dog, you go to Hot Dog University.

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"I don't know if I can do this," Mark Reitman says. He's stopped in at Martino's Italian Beef in Milwaukee to order a quick Polish--American cheese, mustard, pickle on the side--but someone behind the counter has striped the dog with ketchup by mistake. Reitman stares at his lunch. "I never had ketchup on a dog before," he says. "If I like it, I can't admit that I do." Finally he decides to make the best of the offending condiment by eating some fries with every bite of Polish. "It all goes to the same place," he murmurs, as if to console himself.

Reitman is thinking of his pedagogic legacy, not just his taste buds. He's the founder of and sole instructor at Hot Dog University, where would-be hot dog vendors pay $298 for two days of intensive instruction on the ins and outs of running a mobile food service business, aka a hot dog cart. And though he's based in Wisconsin and his students come from many states--some of which, as Reitman puts it, "ketchup their hot dogs"--he champions the traditional Chicago dog. That is: a Vienna Beef wiener topped with mustard, chopped onions, sweet relish, tomato, sport peppers, celery salt, and a dill pickle spear in a steamed S. Rosen's poppy seed bun.

Still, Reitman insists he's broad-minded. "The customer is always right," he says. "Do I get all whacked out about it if someone wants ketchup? No." He stocks it on his own cart, the Grateful Dog, which can often be spotted outside Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery or Stein Gardens and Gifts in Kenosha. Sometimes he even offers mayonnaise. And he warns his sole student for the weekend, a 44-year-old meter technician for Madison Gas and Electric named Dan Council, to expect non-Chicago-style topping requests: "People in Dane County are going to ask you for sauerkraut," he says. "Be prepared for it."

Reitman, 59, started out in food service as an eight-year-old, serving hot dogs and milk shakes at his dad's pharmacy at Kedzie and Harrison. In high school he worked concessions at Henry's Drive-In in Lincolnwood, and as a student at Southern Illinois University he ran the commissary in an all-girls' dorm. After finishing his bachelor's in education and master's in guidance and counseling at Northeastern, he often helped out friends with catering gigs. For several years he ran his own driving school in Glenview, and then put in 25 years as a counselor with the Kenosha School District. After retiring in 2003, he bought a cart and peddled hot dogs on weekends at the Prime Outlets mall in Huntley.

That was where he first got the idea for Hot Dog University. Every once in a while a shopper would see how much business the cart was doing and ask about franchise opportunities. Because franchising involves high legal costs, training new independent vendors seemed like a more attractive option. "I'm a teacher at heart," he explains. After Prime Outlets' management jacked up his rent "substantially," he decided it was time. He founded Hot Dog University in June 2006. He offers the course once a month, usually in a conference room at the Radisson Hotel in Pleasant Prairie, near Kenosha. So far, he's had 20 students, mostly midwestern middle-aged men looking for something to do in retirement. "I've had lawyers. I've had people that are execs at Abbott Labs," he says. He recruits mainly through word of mouth and online forums, like Roadfood.com, that focus on small eateries.

On the first day of the course he lectures on health department requirements, supplies, and licenses and permits; on the second he offers "behind-the-cart training." Though Reitman is pleased by signs that interest in HDU is spreading--two students from southern California have signed up for June--he wants to keep things small enough that everyone gets a turn behind the cart. Class size is currently limited to four students, whose tuition doesn't include accommodations.

Since Dan Council is his only student this weekend, Reitman has decided to hold class at Milwaukee's indoors Public Market instead of the Radisson. The day's first lesson: don't diversify. Hot dogs, Polishes, pop, iced tea, water--that's it. "I once tried selling chicken noodle soup. I couldn't give it away," Reitman tells Council. "Someone's coming to you, they're expecting to buy a hot dog. Doing one thing and doing it well--that's the key." He won't even sell sides that traditionally go with hot dogs: "Potato chips--I'm not having anything to do with them."

Lesson two: value your product. "No specials, no value meals, no deals," Reitman says. "It just demoralizes you and belittles what you're doing. If someone says, 'Three dollars for a hot dog?' say, 'Next!'"

Lesson three: Create atmosphere. Start by supplying your own tunes. "To stand outside without music--I would rather not even be working. I love 40s music, I love swing. I don't play country-western because it's always somebody killing somebody or leaving somebody behind." Also, try to find a location near picnic tables or benches. Incidental giveaways are a smart way to keep customers happy, too. Once when Reitman knew he'd have to share a spot with another vendor during a multiday festival, he says, "I had Vienna Beef give me 1,000 paper hats. I gave one to every kid and every adult that would wear one. They did all the advertising for me. The other guy was seething."

After lunch Reitman takes Council to the Restaurant Depot, a warehouse store for restaurateurs, where he continues his lecture. "These are the sweetest little buns you will ever find anyplace," he says, grabbing a box of S. Rosen's. "Touch 'em. These are fresh." He whizzes down the enormous aisles, pausing only to deliver the occasional condiment edict: "If you have the wrong pickle on a hot dog, you're in trouble. You want a kosher pickle. And not the Claussen's stuff." In the frozen food section, he points out the dogs to avoid. "See the big globules of fat? You will not see those in Vienna Beef." And in an aisle full of kitchen gadgets, he reveals the best thing to keep waxed-paper sheets from flying off the cart: a bacon press.

Council follows Reitman closely around the store. He's had some experience selling hot dogs already, as a fund-raiser for his church's youth group. His cart is already on order and his questions are specific. "Is there a certain kind of apron I gotta have?" he asks. "You want a three-pocket apron," Reitman replies. "One's for ones, one's for fives, one's for tens." Reitman's own apron, from the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, says squeeze me. "I have women hugging me all the time," he says, grinning.

On the second day Reitman takes Council to Milwaukee's artsy Third Ward for his hands-on training on the Grateful Dog. It's chilly but the sun is shining and traffic is decent. Between customers Council practices preparing boxes of buns to go in the steamer, using a meat thermometer to stab a few dozen holes in the bottom box and slit the shrink-wrap on three sides.

There are plenty of other details to tend to as well. He has to stir the hot dogs regularly so they won't discolor from uneven oxygenation. He has to keep the steam trays from going dry. Health regulations mean he has to remove his plastic gloves when he touches anything besides food. Reitman hovers, offering encouragement. "Just give it a pull," he says when Council tries to yank out the hot steam tray with a pair of tongs. "You're good. Beautiful."

Violating his own rule number one, Reitman is offering a special today: an upscale dog made with chicken sausage, Gouda, and apple mustard. By noon he's regretting it. "The hot dog is beating the shit out of the sausage," he says. "In the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't going to fly, but I was hoping it would." He gives a resigned smile. "We have once again found out that the only thing to sell off a hot dog cart is hot dogs."

Still, Reitman easily demonstrates the value of several of his other lessons--like how little freebies make the customer happy. When four young women come up to the cart to place an order, he offers each a piece of gum. "Dubble Bubble! Yay!" he says. "Yaaaaay!" they repeat in unison and proceed to order a substantial amount of food.

Once they're gone Reitman glances over at Council, who's checking the buns. A cloud of warm, yeasty air drifts out of the steam tray and the wind is rustling the waxed-paper sheets under the bacon press. "I screw around a lot, but I'm all business," Reitman tells him. "All business."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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