Hot Doug’s Owner Doug Sohn on His New Book and What He Could Teach the Harvard Business School

Hot Doug's book, coming July 16.
Hot Doug’s book, coming July 16.

You’ve got your Baylesses and your Achatzes, but if you want to talk Chicago culinary ambassadors to the world, you need to stop at a little storefront on an industrial side street that calls itself “the Sausage Superstore.” “Hot Doug” Sohn’s hot-dog joint stands at the nexus of everything in Chicago food — reverence for meat; the gleeful mix of high and low food culture (it was Doug, after all, who got the only ticket for serving foie gras during the mid-aughts ban); streetwise smartassery as the cornerstone of one’s brand identity; and, not least, a serious commitment to doing one of Chicago’s staples better than a million other guys. Now the stop on every tourist’s and food-TV host’s itinerary is coming to book form in July (appropriately titled Hot Doug’s: The Book), combining Doug’s own story, as told to Kate DeVivo, with stories from his customers about how his encased meats have changed their lives. We spoke with the great man himself about how he came to write a book, and what he thinks Hot Doug’s has to tell the Harvard Business School.

So you have a book coming out!
Yeah, and if you look at Amazon, I’ve sold a few already, so I should probably finish it.

It’s not finished?
The manuscript goes off in three weeks. So I’m in good shape.

We get the impression that you’re a guy who turns down a lot of people with great ideas for how they can make money off you —
Oh, yeaaaah. Mostly franchisees. Which would be a really great deal for them, and not for me.

How did you wind up doing this one?
Well, it wasn’t my idea. The publisher came to me, cajoling and trying to convince me. And I worked in publishing, so I knew what was involved. And the three most important words for me were “as told to.” I just knew that if it involved coming home every night and writing for two hours, it was never going to happen. I can do my paperwork every night from the restaurant, but that’s it. But I like to talk, so for a while I did interviews for the bulk of it, and then that was kind of fun, to get a manuscript of those and be able to sit and edit and put it more into my voice. I took three or four days off and just did that. I haven’t done office work in so long that it was actually pretty cool to be creative like that. For about three or four days, that’s as much of that as I figure I can take.

And you know, there were a lot of things that I wanted to write down before I totally forgot them, about how the idea started forming and all that. But realistically, neither the book nor the restaurant happened because I thought they were going to be the road to millions — unless the publisher puts J.K. Rowling’s name on it. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll be back at work on July 17.

So how exactly do you turn a hot-dog stand into a book? What’s the format of the book like?
It’s a combination of linear history, how the idea started, how I opened up the store, my stories about running it, combined with the customer contributions we solicited, mostly via Facebook. Lots of photos and illustrations. Shockingly, I think it’s a real book. I liked reading it, but this could be the moment of the inevitable backlash and everybody’s gonna say “Doug jumped the shark.” We’ll find out.

The best part for me has been reading the customer stories, because there’s a lot that I don’t know that happens here. I mean, the one thing I can never know is what it’s like to stand in line. What it’s like to order from me. So there are a lot of stories from that perspective, of people meeting each other in line. There’s a story about a line incident that I had no idea happened — I don’t want to spoil it because it’s really well written and, hey, I have to sell some books here, but let’s just say there were three guys who should not have been in line.

I’m the kind of guy — I never read reviews. It makes me self-conscious to read about myself; it took me a while to start reading the nice things people say about me. It’s unbelievably cool but it just … I don’t know … Anyway, it was fun reading stories from people I know.

So, a professor from the Harvard Business School picks up your book. What’s he going to get from it that he’s going to want to share with a class?
Hmmmm … I guess in some ways it totally falls into the model of books about how to open a business. Maybe because the restaurant business is one of the worst ideas for what kind of business to open, and you’ll learn a lot of things you shouldn’t do. Like don’t open a restaurant!

Partly I’d say it’s a case study in how you can do all the research in the world, but if you have an idea, the odds are against you, but you should just do it, research won’t help you after a certain point. A lot of the business lessons I’ve gotten weren’t things they can teach you at Harvard Business School.

That said, as much as it seems at times like we’re just making stuff up here, I actually do have an understanding of what makes a business work from other businesses I’ve enjoyed going to my whole life. My grandfather owned a business, my mom worked in retail, so I’ve seen a lot of businesses and how they work.

Is there any restaurant that you went to, maybe as a kid, that made you think, That’s how I’d run a restaurant?
I don’t know if there’s any one restaurant, really. I mean, it could be things like record stores. I loved a good record store, back when that existed; you’d have the people working there who were really passionate about music and who wanted to share that with you. Marshall Field’s, they really showed you how to run customer service, back then. I learned how you treat customers, how to take care of a problem and make it better; that you look the customer in the eye when you’re dealing with them, and give them your full attention, no matter what the line is.

Eddie Lakin of Edzo’s Burger Shop came to me, we’d talked a few times before he opened, but he came to me after he’d been open for a little while. And he asked me, when you’ve got a big line, and you’re chatting with the guy at the front of the line a little and you can tell people in the line are getting steamed about the line, how do you handle that? And I said, that guy’s going to get ticked off no matter what, and if he leaves he leaves, but you have a customer right in front of you and you have to focus your whole attention on him while he’s standing there. You can’t pick and choose the customers you’re going to treat right.

There’s a story that [White Sox manager] Bill Veeck told in one of his autobiographies, where he asked his dad, why do you spend just as much time on the guy buying a nickel bleacher seat as you do on the season ticket holder with the best seats behind home plate? And his dad opened the till and said, “Show me whose money is whose.” People will wait if they know they’re going to get respect and attention.

Do you have anything else you want to tell people before the book comes out?
Yes: buy the book! I need to sit down. I hope it sells enough that I can get a really big advance for the second one that I never actually write.

So you’re still not going to franchise and see your face on revolving signs like Colonel Sanders?
No. I’ve been approached about a second restaurant; I’ve had some very serious offers and proposals. But … just … no. The part of the job I like is what I do, being up front and talking to the customers. It’s not fun for me, sitting at a desk, which is what I would do if there was more than one store.

If I want to own a bunch of something, it’s not going to be restaurants. It’ll be hardware stores or something. I understand how it’s done, having multiple restaurants, but still. I don’t really understand how you do it, personally, and I don’t want to find out.

Hot Doug’s Owner Doug Sohn on His New Book and What He Could Teach the