"One of the curses and blessings of naming a place after yourself is that I believe you have to be there," says Doug Sohn, 48, owner of Hot Doug's, the wildly popular Chicago "Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium."
And Doug is there. Every day. He's the embodiment of what I call the "owner-operated" restaurant. His presence, style, and sense of humor take the edge off of what would otherwise be a torturous wait — at least an hour on most days, and often 90 minutes or more — for some crazy good hot dogs and sausages.
Are the hot dogs and sausages worth it? Oh, yes, they are. The regular Chicago dogs are just really good Chicago hot dogs augmented by caramelized onions, an inspired addition to the Chicago hot dog condiment canon.
The Atomic Bomb is extremely spicy (courtesy of the habanero-jack cheese and the red pepper in the pork sausage). It was too hot for me, but hot-food freaks love it. And the (in)famous Foie Gras Dog, with creamy chunks of foie gras strewn on top, is actually a well thought-out and constructed (and obscenely rich) dish that happens to be in hot dog form.
But back to the line and the wait -- and Doug. After 30 to 90 minutes, serious eaters get their first glimpse of Sohn, who is always there taking orders and money. Doug is the only one I have ever seen taking orders at Hot Doug's, which is cool because he makes the whole experience personal and memorable.
Ask him if he's Doug, he says, "and I'll usually answer with some sassy remark." Though what he thinks of as sassy is fairly tame. "I do my part to keep alive the Borscht Belt humor of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Norm Crosby, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles. I make Cubs references and roller derby references."
Doug is actually incredibly friendly and efficient, genuinely helpful, and manages to move the line along with humor and without being a jerk. When customers realize that he's the Doug in Hot Doug's, he says, they take his requests (such as the rule on not taking a table until after placing an order) with a little more weight than they would from a server there.
He says that his sense of humor helps diffuse any tension regarding crowd control or that might have built as customers wait. "I'm never going to be the best cook in Chicago," he says, "but I can be the funniest, and it really means a lot to people that I'm there taking the time to deal with them one on one. If I can get you to smile, I feel I've done a lot already."
"I want this to be a treat," he says. "I don't care if it's fast food or 3-star dining. This should be a break from your day and something you enjoy."
This attitude and personal touch helps, too, to help preempt negative reviews online.
"That's not the main reason I do it, but, yeah, I'd say that once you've met someone and interacted with them, you'd be less likely to go online and trash them."
But Doug says he rarely spends time online checking what people are saying about him. That's surprising, given the fact that the Hot Doug's Facebook page (with 10,000-plus followers) is updated regularly.
"That's not me!" Doug says. "I don't even know who does it. And at this point, I don't want to know. It would spoil the surprise. I was a bit worried at first, but then I saw that they managed to sound a lot like me and, hey, if someone has the time, I'm happy to let them continue."
It's a testament to Doug's charm that he's managed to connect with people in such a way that someone would anonymously create and maintain this increasingly important marketing tool for him.
To me, that's what eating at Hot Doug's is all about—the vibe that Doug himself creates.
"From the Borscht Belt humor to the Cubs to roller derby, I like this stuff," Doug says. "I simply made Hot Doug's the kind of place I would want to go to. That's all there is to it. There are six billion people out there. Even if you only capture a small percentage of them, you'll be successful."