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“The Chicago-style hot dog,” Zeph Courtney says, “is a classic piece of American food culture. It’s a very, very specific thing. There’s one way to do it right, and every other way is wrong.”
“And we’re going to do it right,” adds Liz Schroeter Courtney.
Liz is Zeph’s wife. She’s also his business partner in Snap, a food truck that will soon add Chicago-style hot dogs to New York’s ever-expanding menu of ambulatory dining options. Snap is scheduled to have its soft launch this Saturday at a Flavorpill event, and will subsequently park itself at spots throughout the city. None of those spots, incidentally, will be on the street, at least for now: Given the difficulties of getting an expensive black-market vending permit, the Courtneys have been developing partnerships with private properties and event spaces — among their planned venues is the backyard of a bar they prefer not to name.
The couple has spent two years doing research and writing a business plan for Snap, whose origins can be found in Liz’s longing for the hot dogs she grew up with in Chicago. “It’s hard to find a good Chicago-style hot dog here,” she says. “I had the idea that I could bring this to the city, but it wasn’t until Zeph and I got together that we realized this is something we can do.”
Although the dogs will be the star of Snap’s menu, the truck will also offer a cheeseburger, a hamburger, and fries, as well as some specials. All of the meat will be cooked on a charbroiler, and will come from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. The specials may include a riff on a banh mi called a brat mi — think bratwurst instead of roast pork — and a Danish-style hot dog, which Zeph describes as “basically a hot dog on a bun with spicy beer mustard and onion and bread and butter pickles.” The Courtneys plan to ask customers to submit their suggestions, though Zeph takes pains to emphasize that, however idiosyncratic their specials may be, they “plan on building a reputation with authenticity, not trends.”
That said, they’re aware that some of their choices may put a few knickers in a knot. “You may have people from Chicago that argue we’re not traditional because we’re not using Vienna beef hot dogs,” Liz acknowledges. “But we’re interested in using food that’s not traveling across the country.”
“Vienna beef hot dogs don’t taste as good as other all-beef hot dogs,” Zeph adds.
For the uninitiated, a proper Chicago-style dog has very specific components. “It has to be an all-beef hot dog in natural casing in a poppy-seed bun and topped with mustard, chopped onions, tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, sweet relish, and sport peppers,” Liz explains. “And you finish it off with a dash of celery salt.”
Given the Courtneys’ insistence on using local meat, it follows that their bun will come from Amy’s Bread and their condiments, which include several kinds of mustard, will be made in-house (the sport peppers, however, will have to be ordered from Chicago). They’re also planning to run their truck on recycled cooking oil and intend to use compostable paper products. “We don’t fancy ourselves as being saviors of the environment,” Liz says. “But there’s little things we can do to lessen the impact.”
“Even if you’re selling deep-fried potatoes and hot dogs out of a giant truck, you can do it in ways you’re not ruining the planet,” Zeph continues. Because the process of converting a truck to match one’s environmental ideals can be costly, the Courtneys are planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign later this month to help with expenses; until everything’s completely squared away, it’s possible that some of their appearances this summer will be truck-free.
In the meantime, Liz isn’t planning to quit her full-time job at a marketing agency, where her work with social-media strategy has, she says, put her “in a good position to see how we can market our plan.”
“Liz is the brains, and I’m the brawn,” says Zeph of his work behind the charbroiler. A native of Boston, he’s lived here for seven years. He’s learned “a lot about the ins and outs of the local food world” in part from working with Salvatore Bklyn and the Brooklyn Flea.
In Zeph’s experience so far, the New York food world has a “communal” feel. “People have been as helpful as they can be” in pointing them to prep kitchens and other resources, he says. The truck’s name also benefited from the wisdom of the crowd. “We had an online survey amongst friends and writers and creative people to come up with names,” Zeph says. “Snap refers to not only the ‘snap’ of a hot dog but also being fast food. It seems to sum it up.”
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