On her way to Menards the other day, Nina Rosen drove past the Vienna Beef Factory Store & Deli and got a powerful craving. "This is the best place for hot dogs," she said, shifting the Prada messenger bag that rested on her hip. She ordered, then wandered over to the soup vats. Lifting each lid, she smelled the rising steam before settling on a prepackaged side salad. It was 9:15 in the morning.
Equal parts cafeteria, employee break room, and retail outlet, the business is located on the ground floor of the Chicago-based company's headquarters at Fullerton and Damen. An endless, waist-high track of brushed aluminum tubing lets customers slide crayon-bright red and blue trays past soups, drink machines, cake and pie slices, and a grill. For employees who bring their lunches or simply want to kick back, there are vending machines and two microwave ovens.
The retail area is separated from the lunchroom by a fringe of giant fake sausages hanging from the ceiling. Inside the deli case are lunch meats and more sausages, including Vienna Beef hot dogs with natural casings. Along another wall are freezers and refrigerators filled with products from the Vienna Beef family of brands: rock-hard slabs of brisket, individual packages of Wunderbar cheesecake-on-a-stick, boxed Pie Piper cakes (dented boxes are discounted), King Kold matzo balls and potato pancakes, and jars of pickled Chipico peppers.
The decor consists of supersize black-and-white photos from the company's early days, colorful modern-day promo posters, and hanging logo flags. There's even a Plexiglas shadow box advertising Vienna Beef apparel. Off in a corner, a giant wooden statue of Michael Jordan in a Bulls uniform stands like a tobacco store Indian.
The plant can operate round the clock when demand requires, and after breakfast starts at 6 the dining room buzzes with activity for hours. Employees in work boots and white plastic hard hats share tables with newspaper-reading businessmen and young professionals like Rosen. Meanwhile, in the deli area, women holding shopping lists load up on bulk corn dogs.
The food is fast, reliable, and cheap; a breakfast special of two eggs, hash browns, toast, and choice of sausage or bacon runs $3.25. The most expensive menu item is the Spanish omelette--three eggs, cheese, and sausage for $3.95. Yogurt, bagels, packaged muffins, and miniboxes of Kellogg's cereals are also available.
"As a rule, hot dogs don't start boiling until at least 9:30," says Elroy Travis, who works the grill. But Travis prides himself on offering the full menu, from a loaded dog to the Texas BBQ beef sandwich, at all times. Tell him what you want, he says, and he'll grill it, boil it, or, in the case of the fruit cup, cut it up just for you. His recommendation? Elroy's Maxwell Street Polish. He says he came up with this combination of sausage, grilled onions, mustard, and peppers while working the soda fountain of a hot dog stand as a boy. It was formally added to the menu last year.
Travis has worked the grill six days a week for the last two years. He feels comfortable enough with his position to improve on his company uniform--a thin strip of paper affixed to his logo cap reads "ELROY SOSA GO CUBS." And he clearly feels sufficiently at ease with everyone who orders from him to dish out liberal helpings of attitude along with the food.
"I don't usually eat hot dogs this early," said Rosen, finishing her breakfast and rising to leave. "But every time I drive by, I have to stop. I try to fight it, but I just can't."
The Vienna Beef Factory Store & Deli is at 2501 N. Damen, 773-235-6652. The store's open 10 to 4 Monday through Friday and 10 to 3 Saturday; deli hours are 6 to 2:30 Monday through Friday and 10 to 3 Saturday.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.