LAS VEGAS – A little-known food pilgrimage unfolds every day far from the fine dining of The Strip.
At the end of this pilgrimage is a delicious relic of Old Vegas: The cheap hot dog.
Steamed in Budweiser until red and plump, stuck in a fresh, soft bun and topped with your favorite fixings or served plain, these Vienna Beef dogs cost $1.25.
In Las Vegas, few things are sacred. The hot dog cart inside South Point Hotel and Casino is one of them.
A Las Vegas staple is born
Every Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and on weekends from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., gambling patrons or hungry locals visit the cart near the sportsbook.
It’s worked this way for four decades, with few changes along the way.
South Point owner Michael Gaughan started selling hot dogs in 1979, when he opened Barbary Coast. He wanted a place where players could grab a quick, easy — and cheap — bite between games.
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The first hot dog brand the cart sold was Hebrew National. But as legend goes, there was a taste test involving two guys with the same initials — Vegas bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro and North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano.
After a 4-1 vote, a new brand landed in the steamer: Chicago-style Vienna Beef.
Back then, they cost 75 cents. Today the dogs are a dollar and a quarter.
When the price went up in 2011, the reaction revealed just how holy this hot dog cart is.
“It’s like a sacred Buddha,” said South Point General Manager Ryan Growney.
Hot dog hate mail
The resort makes virtually no money operating the cart. Supplies cost South Point $1.10 per hot dog. So each sale brings in 15 cents.
“Fifteen cents a dog and then you’ve got to pay the salaries and wages of the employees, so it’s about a break-even proposition,” Growney said. “It’s about giving people what they want.”
But when South Point raised the prices for the first time in 42 years, some of those people weren’t too happy.
“We weren’t looking to make money on these things, but we weren’t looking to lose money on these things,” he said.
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Growney suggested raising the dogs to a dollar. Gaughan, now 77, interjected.
“You can’t go to a dollar,” he said, “because the hot dog girl won’t get any tips.”
A quarter on every dog adds up when you sell 800 to 1,000 dogs a day.
“So that’s what happened – it went to a buck and a quarter,” Growney said, “and I started getting hate mail. Everybody blamed me.”
Letters, emails, the messages were all the same.
“’You can’t come in here and change these things’ – I got a handful of ‘em,” he said. “People told me, ‘Does Mr. Gaughan know you raised the prices?’ I took the heat.”
An economic indicator
In 2019, South Point sold 232,000 hot dogs – more than 630 a day.
In the year of COVID-19, that number was down by roughly 70,000.
During the Tampa Bay-Kansas City Super Bowl, the cart sold 1,608 hot dogs. That was down about 1,000 from the 2,612 sold last February.
The numbers don’t worry the powers that be.
“Normally for the Super Bowl we’d have 6,000 people in viewing parties, and this year we were only allowed to do 300,” Growney said. “We were down 5,000 bodies. So to only sell 1,000 less hot dogs wasn’t bad.”
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Patrons love the hot dogs so much, South Point had to put a limit on the number they could buy at one time – three.
“You can go back in line and buy three more whenever you want, but you’d have people coming in saying, ‘Here’s 20 bucks, gimme 15 hot dogs,’ and then taking them out of the building or taking them back to work,” Growney said. “But that’s not what it’s for. We’re not catering. We just want to make sure our people can grab and go.”