N.J. Hot Dog Tour is much more than meat

Written for MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com

With a sticky note in one hand and a drink in the other, John Fox of Hillside, New Jersey Hot Dog Tour founder and co-organizer for the 12th year in a row, led about 80 hungry and ambitious hot dog lovers on Sept. 12 to visit seven hot dog restaurants.

“You can get a burger or fries if you want to,” he said, as the bus arrived at its final stop at Manny’s Texas Weiner in Vauxhall, “but I would get a hot dog.”

Fox isn’t the only one eager to sample hot dogs for six hours on the annual tour. Throughout the years, people from 48 states and three countries have signed up to hot dog stand hop across New Jersey.

That’s because the tour has a lot more to it than a piece of meat.

Erwin “Benzee” Benz of Bullville, New York, tour co-organizer and retired New York Police Department officer, continues to help set up and attend the tour because “it’s like a family reunion” for some of the members of Facebook group “Hot Dog Nation,” which now boasts over 2,000 members.

This year, the two hot dog buses headed to Galloping Hill in Union, the Union Pork Store in Union, Randy the Hot Dog Guy in Hillside, Cioffi’s Boardwalk in Union, Jerry’s Famous Frankfurters in Elizabeth, Tommy’s Italian Hot Dogs and Sausages in Elizabeth and Manny’s Texas Weiner in Vauxhall.

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The regulars

“I do it because a lot of the same people come out every year and this may be the only time I see them through the year,” said Benz, who manages the logistics of the trip. “I’m more into the camaraderie of the day.”

Fox, a United States Postal Service letter carrier by day and known hot dog aficionado who has been featured on outlets such as NJ.com, Patch.com, the New York Times and various food blogs, said, “This is just a fun day. I want people to have a good time and meet others that have similar interests. It revolves around our mutual love for hot dogs.”

Although all of the attendants love hot dogs, Lou Sherwood of Middletown, New York, who has been on all 12 tours, said, “This isn’t a contest and like a wine tour, you don’t drink the whole glass,” and many participants split hot dogs with another so that they can try more varieties. However, he stressed, “This tour isn’t for the faint of heart.”

Fox said that about 25 percent of attendees come on the tour every year, a higher percentage come most of the time, and 10 to 20 percent are new mustard-covered faces.

Steve DeFrank of New Branford, Connecticut, who was going on the tour for the first time, said that he grew up eating New Jersey hot dogs, so he was excited for this “new adventure.”

Kathy Johnson/MyCentralJersey.com Staff Photographer

Kathy Johnson/MyCentralJersey.com Staff Photographer

Most people are from the tristate area, although some fly in for the tour, including “Miami Don” Thompson of Miami who went on his first tour this year, and Terry Cooper of San Francisco who went on his third tour this year.

Cooper, a self-proclaimed “foodie who just likes to eat” flew into New Jersey at 8 a.m. the day of the tour and flew back to San Francisco the next day. He said that what keeps him coming back is that “hot dogs are the perfect food” and “if I came here alone, I wouldn’t know where to go. These are the people who know hot dogs the best.”

Some of those who come out each year were also present at the first “tour,” which began because a hot dog lover on Roadfood.com, a food blog, posted on Fox’s hot dog thread that he was coming to New Jersey and wanted to check out hot dog restaurants. About 20 others chimed in that they would like to join as well, and a five-car carpool began until someone suggested renting buses as the numbers grew.

The organic nature of the tour explains why it isn’t for-profit. Instead, just like in the beginning, Fox and Benz organize it together, charging $40 a person, which covers the cost of the buses and refreshments. They don’t make any money.

Attendees pay for their own hot dogs as they visit each stop, which usually comes to about $15 to $30 a person.

Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

Quality but differing dogs

One reason that so many are regulars, besides the jovial atmosphere that exists from the bus to every hot dog stop, is that each year, the stops are different.

“When some people hear that I’m organizing this tour, they look at me like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Benz. “They don’t realize that it’s not about who can eat the most hot dogs, but it’s about trying different types and enjoying a day out.”

Kevin Foley of Boston, first-time tourgoer, said that he likes “all food” and that he will “try anything once.” However, he said that he liked the hot dog offered at the Union Pork Store the best. He described it as a simple and crisp hot dog that was reminiscent of the Fourth of July.

Thompson liked the hot dog offered at Randy the Hot Dog Guy’s stand. He said it was a “good, char-grilled dog spiced up with some mustard.” In Miami, he said that similar quality hot dogs are offered, although they tend to be dressed with more Spanish influence.

Fox said that he mixes up the types of hot dogs offered on each annual tour to keep it fresh as well as change up the hot dog restaurants each year. However, one thing is always consistent — a quality dog.

Kathy Johnson/MyCentralJersey.com Staff Photographer

Kathy Johnson/MyCentralJersey.com Staff Photographer

“Even if the other ones are offering free stuff, I keep it to the good hot dog places,” said Fox, who has been to between 200 and 300 hot dog restaurants. “I want people on the tour to get the true Jersey experience and not have to eat anything that I would consider mediocre.”

It’s this difference of quality within hot dogs that piqued Fox’s interest in the first place, besides the obvious fact that he enjoys them (he eats about two or three of them once a week).

“I like them and I like the way they taste. I like the texture, I like the flavor and I like seeing how one place is different from the next,” Fox said. “I like doing detective work and seeing what people use. I take it as a challenge. I’m curious. It’s more than eating a hot dog, it’s knowing about them.”

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