Words Steve Reidell Photos Ryan Lowry
If you’ve been through Chicago anytime since the mid-2000s and found yourself the recipient of local food recommendations, there’s a pretty solid chance that a person or the Internet pointed you in the direction of Hot Doug’s. Owner and chef Doug Sohn is the originator of the since-duplicated variety-on-a-theme gourmet hot dog restaurant, where he works the counter every day it’s open. In the spring of 2014, he announced the beloved Chicago spot would be closing its doors permanently this fall. Mass Appeal spoke with Doug about the concept behind his cased meats phenom, the high art of the wiener, and what it means for him to move on.
Mass Appeal: You’ve said you consider Hot Doug’s to be “a pop-up restaurant, a sort of sham that people finally realize is a hoax.” Do you feel you’ll have pulled it off?
Doug Sohn: That’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but not really. Since the opening, there’s been financial success, and critical success, and all the other trappings that come with that … and there’s still this weird feeling that it’s not real in some ways. It’s hard to explain. Part of it is because I can’t be that objective about it, by its very nature. Considering it just kind of started— I had never owned a restaurant; I had only worked in a restaurant briefly, a grand total of six or seven months. It’s not like I grew up in the restaurant business. So many restaurant owners, their parents owned restaurants, their first job was a dishwasher when they were 14— all these classic stories. For me, not at all, not even close. Honestly, if you asked me 15 or 16 years ago, “Do you see yourself owning a restaurant?” I could have only imagined that was the last thing I’d be doing. Especially now— knowing how hard this is, how hard people work, and how difficult it is to maintain things at a certain level— it’s a little baffling. And it’s been extraordinary. Now people are coming up and telling me, “This has been a part of my life for the last 10 years or so forth,” and I genuinely hope everybody gets to experience that kind of feeling in their lifetime. It’s flattering and humbling and unbelievably cool.
Was there a particular thing that led to your move to end this chapter of the story?
At the end of each year I evaluate, “Do I have another year in me to do it?” At the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I realized that I don’t think I do. I’m not burnt out, I’m not dreading it, but I’m sort of starting to feel like I could be in another year. And this would be a really bad job if I felt like either of those things. And, not gonna lie, there is an element, especially in the restaurant business, of closing because you can, not because you have to. It’s incredibly appealing when you’re still doing well.
You’ve mentioned that the next thing you’re going to do is be able to go out to lunch—
I’m gonna take a nap, and then go out to lunch.
Clarified. And you’ve also mentioned that you have no idea what your next move is.
It’s a very exciting feeling.
Are there any hobbies that are potential candidates for whatever’s next?
Honestly, I’ve just been kinda throwing some ideas into a folder. I suppose at some point we’ll have to look in that folder and figure it out. But sure, you always think about, “Well, what do I want to do at some point?” but there’s definitely nothing concrete. Since we announced the closing, there’s been no time whatsoever to consider anything. People ask me about the next move, and my focus right now is just getting through each day, because that’s getting harder and harder, and all my energy is directed to that. I’ll have time after October 3rd to think about it all.
Did you feel creatively exhausted— and was that part of the making the call?
I maxed out what I wanted to do with this thing. People have certainly asked, “Well, couldn’t you modify it or do different things?” and that notion held no appeal to me. To me, this is Hot Doug’s. This is what I set out to create. I wouldn’t want it to be something else.