Photo courtesy of Superdawg
"Superdawg is not a retro drive-in; it's a drive-in." With those words, you might assume VP Scott Berman is referring to its exterior alone—the hot dog stand has held on to the same aesthetic since the day it was conceived. But just as rooted in history are the eatery's hot dogs, known as one of Chicago's favorites.
Counterintuitively, in a marketplace where brands are constantly evolving to keep their customer base, Superdawg continues to grow by doing just the opposite. According to Scott Berman, also son of the restaurant's founders, they've changed almost nothing since they opened in 1948.
This is not a retro drive-in—it's a relic, a true antique.
The youthful exuberance the restaurant is imbued with is thanks to high school sweethearts Maurie and Flaurie Berman. They hadn't been out of high school long when they opened Superdawg in 1948, serving up hot dogs in the summers to fund their college educations: Maurie to become a CPA, and Flaurie to become a teacher.
And then they graduated. According to Scott, "They said, this Superdawg stuff is more fun than teaching or accounting," and in 1950, they decided eschew their chosen professions to keep Superdawg open year round.
"My parents had this love of what they did. It was their work, but it was also their hobby. It was what they really loved to do."
Everything about the store is just as Maurie and Flaurie designed it when they opened it. So the diamond motif, the neon lights, the boxy, low-slung building—all of it was chosen by Scott's parents in 1948, making it not retro, but authentic.
This look-and-feel is picked up in every aspect of the experience at Superdawg. From the moment you pull up under the neon-lit canopies (the only new addition to the restaurant since 1950), to when you press the button to place your order on the electronic system, to when the carhop clips your tray of food to your window—the experience is just what the Bermans designed back in 1948, when the houses beyond were a prairie where cars were parked when the lot was full.
If you're driving east on Devon, as you round the corner onto Milwaukee Avenue, you'll find Maurie and Flaurie themselves holding court. Or rather, what you'll see are their hot-dog alter egos, dressed respectively in a cartoon caveman's loincloth and a demure blue skirt. As their light-up eyes wink at one another, the pair appear exactly the same as they did when the Bermans designed them in 1948.
And when they opened their second (and only other) restaurant in Wheeling in 2010, the Bermans kept virtually the same aesthetic down to the dogs.
"My parents had a very simple concept: knowing what they make well, and making it over and over and over." Initially, the menu the Bermans created had only a few items, namely the signature Superdawg, custom made with "special cuts of beef and extra time in the smokehouse"; and the Superburger (also available with cheese or as a double). "In all these 70 years, we've only added four items": a charbroiled chicken sandwich, battered chicken strips, chili, and the Whoopskidawg, a "Polish-Romanian-Hungarian sausage" created by Maurie himself.
In fact, everything from the meat to the buns to the condiments are all special made for Superdawg to the Berman family's specifications, meaning you won't find these flavors anywhere else.
Revamping, revising, overhauling—to appeal to consumers, many business are constantly reevaluating their offerings in order to keep pace with the marketplace. So how has Superdawg resisted the temptation to reimagine everything?
"It's my parents' influence," says Scott. "They said, 'We like doing it this way, so we keep doing it this way." Keeping it in the family surely helps as well. Even before his parents passed away, the torch had been passed to Scott and his sister, Lisa Drucker. "For us it was natural. [As children] we would eat there, we would play there, and later we would work there." And though he became an attorney, and still practices law, he still has one hand in Superdawg's operations. So much so that his daughter caught the bug and runs their restaurant in Wheeling.
What keeps them on this track? "My parents passed down a love and passion for the business. People like that [the family] is part of it, they see us there, smiling. It is not a remote operation." To that end, even the staff is family; some have worked at the restaurant for 20 or 30 years.
And then there's the food. "Quality was always uppermost in my parents' minds. The consistency is there [too], so people know that what they ate as a child is what their grandchildren are going to eat when they bring them here." The carhops are also part of the charm—although they were pretty common in the late 40s–early 50s, at Superdawg, Chicago finds one of the few places where carhops tote food orders to customers' cars.
Thanks to the hot dog twosome on the roof (and the spectacular food), the restaurant's been a local icon since it opened, named by many as purveyors of the best hot dogs in Chicago. But somewhere along the way, it gained national notoriety, and Scott says he can pinpoint the exact time to 25 years ago. "Travel writers, from Fodors and Frommer's in particular, began to write about us, saying, 'When you come to Chicago, you have to go to this unique drive-in on the Northwest side.'" And then cable TV popped, with networks such as the Travel Channel and Food Network clamoring for content. Per Scott, Superdawg appeared on multiple episodes of shows with names such as Best Drive-In in America, Best Drive-Thru in America, Best Family-Owned Restaurant. "We were on all of those."
This coverage soon spread to magazines such as Gourmet and even the Smithsonian. Today, Superdawg also counts many celebrities as fans, particularly local ones, such as Billy Corgan, Mike Royko, and Bob Sirott. When hometown band Wilco got tapped for a photo spread in Spin magazine, they picked Superdawg as the location.
We asked Scott about one hotly debated topic on social media: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Chuckling, Scott paraphrases Sonia Sotomayor on her recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: If you have meat encased by bread or a bread-like substance, which in this case is a bun, then it is, definitively, a sandwich. Case closed.