One morning in early July, I'm standing in a small puddle of beef blood in the refrigerated bowels of what is perhaps Chicago's most exclusive attraction. Most people sit on a wait list for years to gain access to this cavernous, largely windowless brick building on the northernmost edge of Bucktown: the 150,000-square-foot Vienna Beef factory, which since 1972 has churned out countless millions of hot dogs at the corner of Fullerton and Damen Avenues.
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A few years ago, the 120-year-old company decided, Wonka–like, to open its manufacturing floor to staff-led tours. In an attempt to peel back the thick casing of mystery and lore surrounding hot dog production—they're 100 percent pig anus, right?—Vienna began telling its story, showing it had nothing to hide when it comes to how its sausage is made. Just one problem: the free tour—held weekly for only six people on Wednesdays from 10–11am—became too popular. Get your name on the wait list today and, according to the tour website, the earliest you'll get in is October 2015.
By then, Vienna Beef's factory most likely will have relocated to Bridgeport; last month, the city approved a $5 million subsidy that will finance the company's move south so the Department of Transportation can rebuild the tangled junction of Damen, Elston and Fullerton Avenues. With the move on the horizon and with July being National Hot Dog Month, I talked my way onto a tour.
On the day of the factory visit, a secretary at company headquarters hands over a release that the six other people on the tour and I must sign. "During the tour, you may be exposed to certain Confidential Information of Vienna Beef," read the form. "This Confidential Information is an extremely valuable and important asset of Vienna Beef, and any unauthorized use of the Confidential Information will cause irreparable economic and business injury to Vienna Beef." (Is the company worried Slugworth might get his hands on its secret formula?) Among the many tour no-nos are cell phones, cameras, purses and jewelry (wedding bands are the lone exception). All it would take is a single nose stud ending up encased in someone's sausage to stain the Vienna name like mustard on a white T-shirt.
Before long, we meet our tour guide, Michael Carlino, a Vienna Beef vice president and genial, old-school Chicago guy. He hands out the items of clothing that all the workers passing by us are wearing: white butcher coats, hard hats and hair nets. I'm the only one who is given a "beard net," which makes me feel like I'm wearing a pair of skimpy women's underwear on my face. I feel slightly embarrassed about it until I realize that many of the factory's workers—the vast majority of whom are Hispanic men—also require the facial-hair buffer.
"What are we going to see?" an older woman on the tour inquires aloud as she adjusts her hard hat over her hair net.
"You're going to see hot dogs being made. We produce 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of hot dogs a week," Carlino answers. "You're going to see our bulk deli meat line being produced. You're going to see soup and chili manufacturing. Overall, we probably process 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of meat a week. We have approximately 250 people who work here in the plant. This plant operates 24/7. A couple shifts are dedicated to manufacturing the product and packaging. The third shift is basically just sanitizing the plant and shipping and receiving."
Carlino leads the group through an insulated doorway into one of the production rooms. The low hum of industrial machinery grows to a din. It's suddenly very chilly and as the docent speaks, his breath is visible. "It's 37 degrees," he says. All the better to keep fresh the large cuts of raw cow and bull meat that sit in the open-topped boxes and stainless-steel tanks that dot the gray, concrete ground.
Visitors are told in advance to wear pants and rubber-soled shoes "due to wet environs." "Please be extremely careful," the release form reads, "as there is potential for water on the floor." No way, I initially think, will Vienna let a tour group see the place in anything but immaculate condition. I certainly never imagined I'd be standing on the factory floor looking down at my feet only to catch a shocking glimpse of my sneakers marinating in a shallow pool of blood.
"Was I just standing in…blood?" I ask Carlino.
He glances at the ground and smirks. "Yes." His nonchalance is unnerving. "We are not a kill plant, though," he reassures me. The source of the red fluid is one of the huge, plastic-lined meat-shipping containers. A worker with an intimidating meat hook stabs the 15-pound pieces of beef (today it's inside round cuts) and tosses them onto a conveyor belt. On either side of the line, employees with long, sharp knives make quick work of the slabs, slicing and separating the lean meat from the fat-heavy parts. "Inside rounds make roast beef," Carlino yells at the tour group over the racket. "Sometimes they're trimming briskets—we take the meat off the bone and the meat is used for corned beef and pastrami and smoked brisket."
The knife-wielding laborers throw the fatty trimmings from the bulk meat onto a separate conveyor belt. Was I naïve to think the tour wouldn't be this raw? Later, one woman on the tour admits the severe chill in the air was the only thing that kept her from passing out. But Carlino beams as he looks on. He knows something magical is beginning—an unsightly alchemy that is generations old. "This is where the manufacturing of hot dogs starts," he says. One of the keys to producing a great dog? Perfecting the recipe's balance of fat and lean meat. "If you use quality meat and quality fat, you get a nice bind, and you don't have to use fillers like soy proteins," he says.
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Further down the hot-dog production line, the cacophony of hulking steel mixers and grinders roaring like dinosaurs threatens to drown out Carlino's voice. Precise measurements of fat and lean meat along with a secret mix of seasonings, corn syrup and ice (to add water and keep the meat chilled) go into what's called a "vacuum bowl chopper," which Carlino describes as "a giant Cuisinart chopper with a vacuum." The concave piece of machinery turns the raw ingredients into a uniform emulsion that could easily be mistaken for peanut butter.
Eventually that brown paste is funneled into a "linker." The machine injects the emulsion into a Saran Wrap–like mold that provides the familiar shape for skinless dogs. Workers hang the wrapped links from rolling "cages," each of which hold up to 600 pounds, and are wheeled into one of eight hickory-fueled smokehouses in the Vienna Beef factory. Carlino swings open a giant smokehouse door sending a hot-dog-infused fog wafting into my face.
The warm air steams up my glasses and I lose the group for a moment as Carlino routes the tour up a flight of stairs. The noise of the factory floor recedes. We walk past some administrative offices and into a small kitchen. A table in the center has sliced hot dogs of various types labeled on paper plates and two types of chili, which Vienna also makes at the plant.
"This is where we try the product that was made yesterday for quality-assurance purposes," Carlino says. The tour is allowed to try samples alongside "the Q.A. group," among them a "sausage meister" named Crystal who has been with Vienna Beef for 40 years. Her father was a longtime employee with the company, moving from security into a position in the plant. Crystal started in the Factory Store at age 14 and worked her way up. I ask her if she is sick of eating hot dogs day in and day out for decades. "No!" she says. "Believe it or not, they're in my freezer at home. We have them at barbecues and picnics."
Every once in a while, the Q.A. group tastes something in a sausage that's just not right. "It's infrequent, but it happens," Carlino says. "Fat, bite, juiciness, flavor, texture. The casing might be too tough."
"Could be too much salt. Could be not enough," another member of the team adds.
"If that happens, we go back and check cycles. We have an extensive amount of paperwork that follows each product as it goes through the manufacturing process," Carlino says. "Meat is not uniform. You're constantly adjusting."
Swinging the tour past the small crew who manufacture Vienna's chili and soups, Carlino makes small talk with the foreman before we head to packing. Here, the mold is removed from the smoked sausages and they're wrapped for retail sale. Packs of Parkview franks, a brand Vienna Beef makes for Aldi, stream by on a conveyor belt and under a metal detector that can immediately shut down the line if so much as a shaving from one of the machines somehow found its way into the product.
Ushering the tour off the factory floor, Carlino instructs us to throw the hair nets in the garbage and toss the coats in a bin to be laundered. The tour is over, but the Vienna experience is not complete without a trip to the Factory Store & Deli. It's lunchtime and Carlino hands out meal tickets good for a hot dog, fries and a drink.
This is where you face the inevitable post-tour dilemma: Now that you've seen how the sausage is made, now that you can no longer live in encased-meat ignorance, will you still eat a hot dog?