The Hofmann Sausage Co. has cooked up what it calls "America's Greatest Hot Dogs" since 1879, making it the country's oldest manufacturer of this product. But if you haven't heard of Hofmann's, that's because the company has stayed local, never straying too far from its Syracuse roots.
But that's all about to change, as one Texas entrepreneur is bringing the franks across the country in an attempt to crack the hot dog hierarchy and, once and for all, back up Hofmann's grandiose claim.
"We're the best hot dog in the world," says Hofmann's CEO Frank Zaccanelli. "And we'll put our money where our mouth is to prove it."
Zaccanelli, a Dallas businessman and former president of the Dallas Mavericks, convinced Rusty Flook, the great-grandson of the company's founder, to sell the company last May. Hofmann's had taken a mostly local approach throughout its history, but Zaccanelli had an audacious plan to take the company nationwide and then global. Zaccanelli, who grew up in Syracuse and has devoured Hofmann's for his entire life, promised Flook he wouldn't change the recipe.
"If it ain't broke," Zaccanelli says, "why fix it?"
Zaccanelli's first order of business over the summer was to establish a team of investors and marketers who could help bring Hofmann's outside the state of New York. Zaccanelli has some experience putting together a first-class team before, as he laid the groundwork for the Dallas Mavericks squad which would make two NBA Finals appearances in a five year span. Zaccanelli presided over the team on draft night in 1998, when it drafted Dirk Nowitzki and traded for Steve Nash. He also helped negotiate a deal for a new arena which opened in 2001, the American Airlines Center.
Zaccanelli knew how important sports were in bringing partners onboard. After all, millions and millions of hot dogs are sold each year at sporting events. So Zaccanelli persuaded former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach as well as Syracuse basketball legends Jim Boeheim and Dennis DuVal to invest in Hofmann's.
And to put a face to the company's nationwide approach, Zaccanelli convinced-- who else? -- Takeru Kobayashi to sign with Hofmann's. Kobayashi is one of the most recognizable competitive eators of his generation, and no one knows hot dogs like the six-time winner of the Nathan's Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest.
"It’s basically about getting the word to people and for people to understand what it really is," Kobayashi said, through a translator, about his role with Hofmann's. "If they hear about it, then they will try it themselves. But they first they have to hear about it, and I plan to bring that attention to them."
Kobayashi's responsibilities extend well beyond that of a national spokesman. Hofmann's will also be unveiling a line of Kobayashi hot dogs, which Kobayashi said he hopes to have finished by the end of the year but may have to push back until 2013. Kobayashi will also be integral in bringing Hofmann's overseas, especially to his native Japan, where he has an enormous following.
But before Hofmann's looks abroad, Zaccanelli knows he must establish the brand in the United States. That's a significant challenge, because hot dogs tend to be a regional food.
"Hot dogs are a little like baseball teams," Janet Riley, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council told the Syracuse Post-Standard in September. "You like the hometown team, and you like the hometown hot dog and sausage."
Hofmann's marketing push has started in Texas, where the products are already available at 67 Albertsons supermarkets and 151 Brookshire's supermarkets. This weekend Hofmann's is stationed at the Texas State Fair, where it is holding a hot dog eating contest and looking to spread the word about its expansion.
Zaccanelli says the Lone Star State is just the start of Hofmann's nationwide push. Hofmann's also plans to unveil 50 fast food restaurants across the country, where along with traditional hot dogs, they'll serve hamburgers with a hot dog theme-- thin and long burgers inside a hot dog bun.
Phil Romano, the founder of national chains Fuddruckers and Romano's Macaroni Grill, has partnered with Hofmann's on its fast-food push. The restaurants will be called Hofmann's Hots, and they are a crucial component of the company's expansion framework.
"Anybody who comes to our restuarants to eat our products is going to know where to buy them in the stores," Zaccanelli says. "So there’s a cross pollination of the marketing, branding and advertising, and that’s the beauty of what the restaurants do, outside of being profitable."
In establishing its brand across the country, Hofmann's will need to prove it belongs in the upper echelon of hot dog manufacturers. As of now, four brands rest at the top of the hierarchy: Nathan's, Hebrew National, Ballpark and Oscar Meyer. Zaccanelli expects the quality of Hofmann's dogs to speak for itself, and he has challenged Nathan's to a taste-testing, with the loser donating money to the other company's charity.
"It doesn’t have to be on the Fourth of July, but if Nathan's thinks they make the best products in America, let’s have a contest," Zaccanelli. "We’re ready."
And while they're at it, they might as well settle the dispute between Nathan's champion Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi, who hasn't competed in the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest contest since 2009.
"Let’s see who the heavyweight champ of the world is at competitive eating," Zaccanelli said. "I think it’s time."