When you take me out to the ballgame, I may sing about peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the seventh-inning stretch, but I’m far more likely to dine on a dog slathered in Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard. In fact, few foods are more closely associated with America’s favorite pastime than that tubular treat known as the frank. Major League Baseball fans ate more than 19 million hot dogs last season alone, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.
And it turns out our enjoyment extends far beyond the ballpark: Americans spent more than $2.4 billion on hot dogs at supermarkets in 2016. For the gourmand and health-conscious shoppers alike, hot dogs are among the guiltiest pleasures. Take a close look at the nutritional contents of one of the major packaged brands, and you’ll find mechanically separated meat mixed with preservatives and products like corn syrup and “flavor”—all the makings of a true junk food.
Playing around with a recipe for an alternative to typical additive-laden links is what led chef Matt Baber and his wife, Emily, to create Wolf Boy Provisions—a handcrafted hot dog made with scratch ingredients and local meat.
Inside the commercial kitchen at Hildebrandt Provisions Company on Cleveland’s west side, Matt roasts fresh garlic and onions for a batch of his “bona fide” 100% beef hot dogs. As we huddled around a gas range to fry up some samples in a cast-iron pan, we discussed what makes their dog stand out as a pack leader.
The difference was palpable once the skillet sizzled as a bouquet of aromatics began to ascend and the exterior caramelized to a rich amber hue. The brick color and crispy texture are thanks to paprika and raw turbinado sugar, which are blended with a spice mixture that includes white peppercorn and coriander. Naturally derived nitrates come from celery juice powder rather than pink salt, which contains chemicals. Meat is sourced from New Creation Farm in Chardon, where cattle are pasture-raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.
“Animals are out in the field eating grass their whole life—like cattle should be raised. We keep that same ethic in our kitchen,” Matt says. “We don’t use any processing agents. One thing I love to do, which I think makes us unique, is roasting fresh vegetables—we don’t use garlic or onion powder. We toast whole spices and then grind them for every batch, too.”
Cellulose casings hold the emulsified meat intact while it’s smoked, then are peeled off and discarded for packaging. Although a filler is necessary to achieve the product’s familiar mouthfeel, Wolf Boy Provisions opts for dehydrated milk powder, steering clear of commonly used soy and corn fillers. The result is a slightly dense, totally decadent indulgence that’s miles away from concession stand fare.
It all began for Matt after he attended culinary school at International Culinary Arts & Sciences Institute in Chesterland and became passionate about charcuterie. He constructed his own curing box at home and started experimenting in his free time. Duck prosciutto was his first successful attempt at fine meat curing, and he honed his skills in the kitchens of Dante, fire food and drink, and Spice Kitchen + Bar before beginning his entrepreneurial endeavor.
“Matt himself is pretty down to earth and appreciates foods that are accessible to everyone,” says Emily of her husband. “He began working with the idea of a “better” hot dog and found a welcome challenge in finding a recipe and process that resulted in a familiar flavor and texture without relying on some of the horrifying ingredients found in a typical hot dog. It’s a pretty tough recipe to nail without using additives to achieve the desired result.”
Mastering the hot dog recipe wasn’t the only difficulty Matt encountered as a startup. While Emily kept her day job, the two began building brand awareness at a trio of Northeast Ohio farmers markets and the Cleveland Flea throughout the 2015 season by selling bacon, brats, hot dogs, kielbasa, and sausages. “Our sample game was strong,” she says. “We’d bring a little deep fryer and make mini corn dogs or bring a toaster oven and make tiny pigs in a blanket.”
Though their fan base was growing, first-year farmers market revenues couldn’t support the salary for a second set of hands in the kitchen. Matt laughed as he described his routine at the time. “I was coming in here, cranking out the sausage by hand, packaging it, curing and slicing the bacon, trying to slide it into the package and make it look all nice, loading it all up. Everything was great, but being able to accomplish it all and keep it fresh was a challenge,” he says.
To grow their business, it was necessary to enlist the help of a co-packer, a USDA-inspected plant that would enable wholesale sales to restaurants and retailers. Heading into 2016, Matt and Emily made the decision to focus on the hot dog, temporarily trimming their product line to a single item.
“We do hope to offer more products again at some point, but we’re okay with a slow growth plan that allows us to maintain control over what we’re putting out there. We want to stay pretty small and remain a truly local business,” Emily says.
Finding the right relationship and fine-tuning the results was a painstaking process that took an entire year, “You’re asking someone else to hold your standard for you,” he says. “Unfortunately, most of these guys (co-packers) aren’t chefs, and don’t understand that this is a chef-driven product. We had some consistency issues initially. Not so much in the product, but in the way that it was presented, which is just as important. Making sure they all looked uniform and that the label was on straight was a big issue.”
Stepping out of the box by incorporating handcrafted, artisan ingredients layered on yet another learning curve in an industry accustomed to standardized production for the masses. A second co-packer and several test batches later, things are running smoothly.
Nowadays, Matt roasts the garlic and onion, blends the spices, and packages each item to ship to the co-packer, who then returns the packaged, pre-cooked hot dogs for sale. As other products are introduced to the line, he’ll likely be making them by hand himself at the Hildebrandt kitchen.
“With a normal sausage you grind and case it, and it’s still kind of chunky when you eat it, whereas a hot dog is whipped so it’s all homogenous. That consistency is really hard to achieve manually in a space that’s not climate-controlled, so the equipment that the co-packer uses is able to process it to a complete emulsification. Brats, chicken sausages, and bacon are future possibilities now that we’ve gotten our co-packing under control,” Matt says.
Purchase Wolf Boy Provisions hot dogs at The Grocery OHC, Tremont General Store, and the Local Roots markets in Ashland and Wooster. Or stop in Gordon Square for a cows in a blanket appetizer at Old City Libations featuring slices of Wolf Boy Provisions hot dogs enveloped in pillowy pretzel dough. For more details, visit WolfBoyProvisions.com, and for Matt and Emily’s recipe for Apple Sorghum Mustard visit EdibleCleveland.com.