Hot dogs are a guilty pleasure for Brooks Kindel. As the khaki-suited executive joined the lunchtime crowd at the Kozy Kart hot dog stand in the Century City Shopping Center, he resembled a child on Christmas morning.
"I only allow myself this indulgence once in a while," said Kindel, 35, grinning as he contemplated the steaming red frank on a hot bun. "And I always come to this stand. They smell so good that I can't resist."
Thanks to Kindel and other enthusiasts, the much-maligned frank is enjoying a surprising resurgence on the Westside these days. Health food advocates may not relish the thought, but growing numbers of people are throwing culinary caution to the wind by embracing one of the world's most notorious junk foods.
Hot dogs, once relegated to the ball park, were served at a posh Century City fund-raiser for Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) not long ago.
Winning New Fans
Traditional and gourmet dogs, including some made of such exotic ingredients as duck, also are winning fans in fitness-conscious communities from Malibu to Hollywood, giving new meaning to the term "dog days of summer."
And the colorful hot dog carts that have occupied Eastern and Midwestern street corners for decades are now laying claim to the palm-lined streets of some of the Westside's wealthiest communities. In an interesting melding of cultures, one cart that has been seen in the fashionable Melrose District is pulled by a gleaming BMW.
Health deparment officials report there are about 200 hot dog carts scattered across the county. Frankfurter manufacturers say Los Angeles, once regarded as a wiener wasteland, has become one of their major growth areas.
"We didn't even have a meaningful presence in Los Angeles until six or seven years ago," said Walt Stugis, director of marketing for the New York-based Hebrew National Kosher Foods. "Now it's our fastest growing market. Sales have been increasing by 40% to 80% each year for the past four years."
Stugis said hot dogs made of high-quality ingredients appeal to "upscale Los Angeles consumers." Incredibly, he predicts that by summer's end, Southern California will surpass the Greater New York area, where 20 million Hebrew National hot dogs were sold last year, as the company's No. 1 market.
Others tell similar tales. Jim Eisenberg, chairman of the Chicago-based Vienna Sausage Manufacturing Co., said his hot dogs are available at 100 to 150 frank stands around Los Angeles, compared to 15 or 20 five years ago.
Eisenberg said Vienna, an all-beef dog that is sold commercially and is not available in grocery stores, cracked the Los Angeles market with an ambitious public relations campaign aimed at the Westside and the San Fernando Valley. "It "It isn't just a matter of selling someone a hot dog. You have to sell them the concept."
John McMillin, a food industry analyst for Prudential-Bache Securities, said fast-moving Angelenos are well-suited to the hot dog, despite their legendary fussiness about food.
"In this day and age, anything that can be eaten with one hand, on the run, will do well," McMillin said. "And clearly, hot dogs are grazing foods. . . . The level of demand has been pretty high."
With their fashionable clothing and their trim physiques, a lot of people seen at hot dog stands look like they must have taken a wrong turn on the way to the sushi bar. The average wiener, after all, contains nearly 300 calories, not counting chili. But hot dog devotees are extremely frank in their praise.
Claudia Montero likes hot dogs because "they're good and inexpensive," with the average dog costing $1.50 to $2.50. Larry Gast, a salesman who occasionally eats franks for lunch, said: "I like them. I don't know if they're that good for you, but they sure are convenient." Larry Guerra said hot dogs fit his life style. "I'm a carpenter, so I like junk food," he said. Added J. R. Larson, his friend: "As long as you don't know what's in them, you're OK."
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council in Oakbrook, Ill., reports that New York and Chicago still reign as the frankfurter capitals of the world, though they do not keep precise statistics on regional or national hot dog sales. But Los Angeles may soon become known as the haute dog capital, as manufacturers entice local taste buds with everything from chicken and turkey dogs to veal and duck.
"Your part of the country is kind of ripe for the whole gourmet hot dog thing," said Fran Altman, the hot dog and sausage council spokeswoman.
On Westwood Boulevard, Wally's Liquor Store, which is well known for its vast selection of wines and single-malt scotches, offers something known as a "Wally Dog," a concoction specially created by the store's owner.
In Venice, Jordan Monkarsh has built a gourmet sausage empire out of a small hot dog and sausage stand on Ocean Front Walk. Billing himself as "Jody Maroni the Sausage King," Monkarsh first lured people in with free samples.