May 22, 2020 6 min read
In normal times, Memorial Day weekend might be the first time you’d consider buying hot dogs since last summer. But of course, these are not normal times, and there’s a good chance you’ve tasted snappy, meaty (possibly microwaved) frankfurter flesh more recently than that.
Market research from Chicago-based data-analytics firm IRI shows that in mid-March, at the height of panic-buying, hot dog sales were up 127 percent from the same time last year. And people are buying in bulk, too: eight-packs, 10-packs, 24-packs have all been flying off the shelves.
That’s probably because hot dogs are an obvious quarantine choice: long shelf life, protein-dense, easy to prepare and kid-friendly. National brands account for 97 percent of the hot dog market, but smaller companies have also felt the boost — in their online and supermarket sales, at least.
“Initially we actually took a pretty big hit, since a big chunk of our business is food service,” says Tony Fragogiannis, owner of The Brooklyn Hot Dog Company, which Fragogiannis founded in 2012 with business partner Justin Neiser. They make premium classic beef dogs as well as a variety of specialty dogs, like Gyro and Buffalo Chicken. “We supply restaurants around New York City and L.A., and we lost the majority of that business overnight. But our online direct-to-consumer sales — which has always been a very, very small part of our business — is up 300 to 400 percent. So when we were fortunate enough to get that positive inflUX of business, we started thinking about how we could pass it along.”
Every two weeks since the pandemic began, The Brooklyn Hot Dog Co. has chosen a different NYC restaurant delivering meals to healthcare workers and donated 10 percent of their online proceeds to that establishment. Currently, they’re partnering with World Central Kitchen. “We wanted them to use that money to make food for frontline workers,” Fragogiannis says, “and to keep people employed since everyone’s trying to make it on takeout or delivery.”
Tony Fragogiannis and his business partner Justin Neiser// Image credit: The Brooklyn Hot Dog Company
Recent developments, however, have thrown up some roadblocks for Fragogiannis. As has been widely reported, meat-processing plants have been the sites of significant outbreaks, which has resulted in skyrocketing meat prices. “We got hit last week with a crazy price increase, like 40 percent,” Fragogiannis says. “We do beef, and we also do chicken and a pork hot dog. Everything is up, but beef is the most, and beef is also our biggest seller. So we’ve kind of negotiated it down a little bit and are trying to work out some creative ways to get around it. But we’re currently eating the cost, because it’s such a crazy amount that we can’t pass that along to our customers.”
Meat prices going up was something that Joe and Michael Quinn, brothers and co-owners of Feltman’s of Coney Island, anticipated when the pandemic took off. So they invested in getting ahead of it. “We wanted to be ahead of the curve, so we took a risk and put in orders for hundreds of thousands of pounds of beef before the prices went up,” Michael says.
Panic-buying aside, they were confident that hot dogs would be in unusually high demand for the average household this summer. “People are going to have more backyard barbecues,” Joe says. “They’re going to have people on the porch, or they’re going to be grilling in the park versus going to a restaurant or the baseball park.”
The Quinn brothers started Feltman’s in 2015. In doing so, they revived the (real) original hot dog recipe from Charles Feltman, a German baker who introduced Coney Island beachgoers to his frankfurter on a bun in 1867. The business was also created in honor of their middle brother Jimmy, who was killed on 9/11 at just 23 years old.
“Jimmy and Mike were older than me,” Joe says, “And they always had these grand ideas of us brothers starting a great business. But without Jimmy, it was just sort of impossible to think about. He was, you know, the gregarious one, the business one, that networker. Losing him left a huge gap in our family. But in 2015 Mike and I sort of said, ‘What the hell, why don’t we take a crack at this thing?’”
Joe and Michael Quinn // Image credit: Feltman’s of Coney Island
While their Luna Park stand has closed, along with so many of the bars and restaurants they supply to (like McSorley’s, New York’s oldest pub), the Quinns made a fortuitous decision last fall to pivot toward wider supermarket and ecommerce distribution. They’re now in more than 2,000 supermarkets, including Whole Foods, and since February their online sales — mostly through their own website, but they are also available on Amazon — have jumped 900 percent.
Giving back to their community has always been important to the Quinns, and when the outbreak began ravaging New York, they knew they had to help. Joe’s wife — who is expecting their third child in three weeks — is a nurse practitioner at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Joe, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, says, “It was a war. For my wife and her friends, it was combat. Mike and I felt like we had to do something.”
So they started sending care packages — “Hot Dogs for Heroes” — to the nurses on the frontlines, in addition to donating to local pantries and police stations. This week, they’re giving all proceeds from their online sales to TAPS, which provides care and resources to survivors of those who died serving in the military. They also made a Memorial Day video to express gratitude to the pandemic’s first responders, and to stand in solidarity with the families who are grieving in solitude after losing loved ones to the virus.
Michael, Joe and their late brother Jimmy // Image credit: Feltman’s of Coney Island
“That’s what Memorial Day is all about,” Joe says. “There’s more than enough love to go around for us to take a moment this weekend to remember those families.”
Maybe even over a hot dog.