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2009-02-17 Best Hot Dog Gone

As published in the Huffington Post

The best hot dog in the town famous for hot dogs, perhaps the best hot dog in the nation, Best's Kosher Franks, has been chewed up and spit out by the conglomerate that swallowed it whole.

Best's Kosher, whose franks ranked #1 in a double blind tasting of all-beef wieners by this taster (see below) has been shuttered. According to an AP report on Forbes.com, "Sara Lee also has been shedding businesses that don't fit into its strategy of focusing on categories where it is strong." According to multiple reports, the brand was profitable, just not profitable enough.

In addition to it's superb franks, Best's also sold knockwurst, Polish sausage, salami, bologna, chopped liver, pastrami, corned beef, and kishka (blood sausage). Sarah Lee also owns Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean and Ball Park brands, all of which will continue. The closing of the plant on Pershing Road in Chicago will mean the loss of about 185 jobs.

Best's was a venerable brand, established in 1886 in Cincinnati by German immigrant Isaac Oscherwitz, and nurtured for more than a century by his descendants. It was sold to Sara Lee in 1993. The company started its move to Chicago in 1925, set up shop in Bridgeport near the stockyards, and grew rapidly. At one time Best's was the brand sold at Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, the United Center, and Soldier Field, where I enjoyed many of their garlicky, natural casing sausages. The story of Best's Kosher is told sweetly by Susan Berger, the founder's granddaughter, in an Chicago Tribune op-ed earlier this month.

Small profits, quality products, faithful followers, 185 livelihoods, and tradition are apparently meaningless to Sara. It's an all too familiar tale. WBEZ radio, the NPR outlet in Chicago, broadcast an interview with Berger and among the comments posted to their website was this telling eulogy by Larry Warsh, of W. Bloomfield, MI, who claimed:

"I was distributor for Best for 40 years and a broker for them for 10. When Sara Lee bought Best their attitude was that if a small broker could do the kind of business I was doing, how much more could their large brokerage organization do? It was a case of a large conglomerate buying a small ethnic company, letting go all the people that got Best where they were and putting in people that didn't really know about Kosher lunch meats. They were bound to fail."

It is not known if there is any buyer interested in acquiring the brand and/or its facilities. One can hope because, according to a BBC report, the U.S. has a shortage of kosher meats.

The lesson is that if you have built a business and you decide to cash in, kiss it goodbye, because there's no telling what the new owners will do with it. I have also lived through this heartbreak. In response to speculation that Perdue Farms was interested in getting into the kosher meat biz, one commentator on a Jewish website mused "Marcel Proust wrote about it in "Recherche du Temps Perdue." Proust's book titled A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was translated as Remembrance of Things Past. Sigh.

Click the links to read my ratings of the best all-beef franks, my rankings of the best Chicago Hot Dog stands, how to make the perfect hot dog, and more recipes and lore.

Remember, no rules in the bedroom or the kitchen. Meathead

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