Thursday, May 08, 2014

All Things Must Pass: On the End of Hot Doug's and the Admirable Antithesis of Conventional Wisdom

"After all is said and done
I did alright, I had my fun 
I will walk before they make me run"
-- "Before They Make Me Run"
    The Rolling Stones

On the front page of Wednesday's Chicago Tribune, just below the story about the calamitous near-term effects of climate change, is a large photo and article about a hot dog stand planning to shut down.

This may not ordinarily seem like front page news, but in the case of Hot Doug's, I have no argument with it being so. 

Because for 13 years--though I've only known of it for seven--"the sausage superstore and encased meat emporium" run by Doug Sohn at the corner of Roscoe and California has been among the very best, most distinctive places in Chicago.

Of any kind. 

This goes well beyond wildly unique tubular beef creations--such as those that feature wild boar, yak, kangaroo and foie gras, just a few of the current specials--or that Doug himself has personally taken the order of every customer who has walked through his door.

It's because, without meaning to go all Sinatra on you, Doug Sohn did things his way.

And it's nice to note, he still is. 

Understandably, the gist of the Tribune article by Kevin Pang regarding Sohn's announcement that he will close Hot Doug's for good on October 3 is that devoted patrons--almost all who have undoubtedly, like me, stood in line for 30 minutes or much more just to get lunch--are terribly sad about the news. 

This mournful sentiment was also reflected by every post and comment that hit my Facebook news feed. 

Yet while I have greatly enjoyed all of my visits to Hot Doug's--perhaps once or twice a year since 2007--and have lavished praise on it here and elsewhere, the way that Sohn has operated his business can only bring a smile now that he is opting out, not a tear.

I mean this in the way that I still miss seeing Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side on a daily basis, but am glad that I had the chance...and greatly admire the decisions of their creators (Bill Watterson and Gary Larson, respectively) to stop on their own terms and go out on top, in spite of leaving untold millions on the table. 

Sohn has always been nice and engaging when I've ("finally!") reached the counter at Hot Doug's, and may recognize my face at this point--thanks perhaps to my also buying a signed copy of his restaurant's namesake book after an event at the Skokie Public Library--but we do not know each other in any real sense. 

So I do not pretend to have any keen insight about how nice, cool, altruistic or genuine he really is, or what has prompted any decision he has made, but perceptions alone make Doug Sohn one of my heroes.
At a time when I feel there is a whole lot inordinately wrong with America, Doug is a prime example of what's right. 
First of all, for anyone who wants to mistake my derision of the corruptive evils of capitalism--given an oligarchical system that serves the corporatocracy and mega-rich while screwing over the rest of the citizenry--as hatred for or envy of those who become successful, my admiration for Sohn renders such assumptions as being a bunch of bullshit.

For he is a self-made success story that stands as an antithesis to conventional make-every-last-buck-you-can-even-if-you-don't-need-it thinking.

Doug is a trained chef who had the novel idea of bringing his culinary expertise to the corner hot dog stand, long a staple of Chicago cuisine. 

Those who only admire that he owns a hugely popular establishment with lines out the door may not give enough creedence to the fact that he started anew after a fire destroyed the first Hot Doug's location (in Roscoe Village), that he isn't exactly in a buzz-worthy location and the reality that MOST RESTAURANTS FAIL. 

I have no idea at this point if Doug's net worth is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 figures, and couldn't care less, but even if I knew him to have made $50 million off Hot Doug's, I would be nothing but happy for him. 

He deserves whatever wealth he has earned: he took a chance, became successful due to his talent, imagination and graciousness, seemingly never sacrificed quality or his own integrity and, presumably, made a lot of money. 

Which, adding to my admiration, he now seems to be saying is enough for him. At least in terms of the sure source of considerable income that is his sole restaurant. 

In Pang's article, Sohn is quoted as saying, "I'm not burnt out; it's just time."

There is no mention of plans to sell Hot Doug's to another operator.

Though he assuredly could have opened additional locations, at his library talk he said that was never a consideration.

The restaurant is open from 10:30am-4pm Monday through Saturday, clearly missing out on vast additional income.

When Doug has taken a vacation or other time off, he has closed Hot Doug's. 

So while I would have to surmise that Doug Sohn is somewhere, somehow justifiably rather proud of the financial
success--and resultant freedom--his gourmet sausage emporium has engendered, I'm proud to note that mercilessly squeezing out every last possible penny seems far from his primary motivation. 

I imagine this will continue to be true in whatever Doug's next endeavor may be. So far he isn't saying, but per Pang's article he is "99 percent sure it won't be in the restaurant industry."

All I know is that if it's possible for me to support his next enterprise, I will. 

I'll also send or give this blog post to Doug, hoping he may read it, for I want him to know that while I will greatly and genuinely miss Hot Doug's--after hopefully getting there a couple more times--I can't help but happily applaud his decision (and I'm sure my doctor will as well).

And while I nearly concur with his t-shirt slogan--though it may be time to buy a cool new one--that:

"There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats,' my friend." vote would be for two others:

Enjoy life.

Doug, I hope you do, until October 3, 2014, and even more so thereafter. Thanks for all the great wieners and so much more.

Long may you run. Or perhaps more pleasurably, walk.

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