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Thursday, July 24, 2003 02:32 pm

Top dogs

Mark Anderson and Rob Deaton are devoted to the hot dog

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Three months ago, Mark Anderson and Rob Deaton opened the Wienerdog, a business dedicated to that quintessential summertime meal: the all-beef hot dog.

The two were working at a local Applebee's, when they came to the realization that what this city really needed was a good hot dog. "There just weren't any good hot dogs places here," says Anderson. "They used to be a lot more prevalent."

A Peoria native, Anderson had lived for several years in Chicago, where, of course, "hot dogs are a dime a dozen." And while visiting his girlfriend's family on the east coast, he became familiar with the version served on pushcart stands, loaded with mustard and sauerkraut and served on toasted New England-style rolls.

So the two men decided to strike out on their own and show the capital city what it was missing. They both admit it hasn't been easy. Obtaining financing was a struggle in a weak economy, despite their experience in the food industry. "We were told we were crazy," says Anderson, who's 33.

But many were impressed by their enthusiasm. Working at chain restaurants made them want to express their personalities and unique ideas--and to interact more with their customers. "We wanted a business where it was just the two of us," Anderson says. "We know we're in it for the right reasons. It's been a huge learning experience."

They had no idea July was officially National Hot Dog Month. "Is that a Hallmark holiday?" Anderson asks. What difference would it make? They live, breathe, and eat hot dogs every day. They'll explain in excruciating detail why they chose to tuck their dogs inside toasted New England-style rolls. They'll rattle off statistics--the small dogs are "ten-to-ones," or ten wieners per pound, for instance, while their "Big Dog" weighs a quarter pound. Their enthusiasm hasn't been tempered by the local competition, like the Cozy Dog Drive In, home of the original corn dog, or the Coney Island, which has been a Springfield institution since 1919. After eating at both spots, Anderson found that "neither place has a Chicago- or New York-style hot dog. We wanted a place like in Chicago. We do sell Italian beef, but other than that it's all about the wienies."

They sell David Berg brand pure-beef hot dogs. The rolls are shipped in from the east coast. Menu items include chili dogs, cheese dogs, and Wienerdogs, which are steamed and then served on a toasted roll with onions, mustard, and meat sauce. Anderson says they give two per order because the smaller dogs are easier to eat--and each bite includes just the right mix of meat, bread, and other ingredients. Other specialty dogs include the New Yorker, a footlong served with mustard and sauerkraut, and the Chicago Dog, which is served on a poppy seed bun and topped with mustard, deli relish, onion, tomato, pickle, cucumber, celery salt, and a sport pepper. You can also buy bratwurst and Polish sausage.

Among the quirkiest items is the Seersdog, named for the hot dogs served with Cheez-Whiz that many Springfieldians recall being served at the Sears department store. "We have customers, especially senior citizens, who come in and remember smelling those hot dogs in the store," Anderson says. Another nostalgic favorite is the Burnt Wienie Sandwich, which is served simply because that's how Deaton enjoyed them as a child. He's found out he's not the only one--he sells at least five a day, and not just to children. "Adults love them, because they remember eating them that way as a child," Deaton says, laughing. Homemade chili rounds out the menu, and there are chips, cookies, drinks, and a few kids' items.

The Wienerdog is a block north of the Old State Capitol on Sixth Street, in a tiny first-floor storefront of a newly restored building. It just happens to be across the street from the not-yet-opened Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, which is a fact the owners are banking on for future business. The sparsely decorated eatery--with a white tin ceiling, stainless steel counters, and white walls--may be well positioned for a lot of tourist traffic once the library and museum open. But in the meantime the men admit they need to get the word out, because they sit a few blocks away from the bulk of downtown foot traffic. They've already put out two umbrella tables in the hopes of luring outdoor diners.

The business has attracted some loyal customers, as evidenced by its recent weekday lunch-hour crowd. Joe Murphy, an X-ray technician at St. John's Hospital, walked in wearing blue surgical scrubs and ordered a chili cheese dog. He says he comes once a week to get a breath of fresh air and a hot dog, which he eats on his way back to work. He once stopped by with a special order. "One of our patients really needed a hot dog, so I came and got one for her," he says.

The Wienerdog is at 113 N. Sixth St (744-DOGG). Take out orders available. Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. The place will be open on Saturdays starting August 2.

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