GOLD COAST — Long before city eaters became Hot Doug’s disciples, they worshipped at the grill of Barry Potekin, Chicago’s hot dog king.
An options trader bankrupted when the bottom fell out of the silver trade, Potekin found unlikely redemption by opening Gold Coast Dogs, once the most-beloved hot dog joint in Chicago.
His upscale dogs — served perfectly boiled, Cajun-spiced or delightfully charred with a bottle of Perrier to go — were coveted by working men, business executives and Hollywood stars passing through town.
And as far as hot dog vendors go, Potekin was a rock star. He was toasted by gastronomy icons Julia Child and Jeff Smith of the “Frugal Gourmet” and dubbed “entrepreneur of the year” by Venture magazine. He even appeared on the Oprah show and was featured in a People magazine article that declared, “Wiener Take All.”
“I didn’t know I was inventing upscale fast food, but that’s what they said, and it was good for business. It felt really good to have the world stand up and applaud,” Potekin said. “They say the definition of an entrepreneur is the ability to hit a target no one knows is there. I guess I did that.”
And then, in 2002, Potekin sold his hot dog kingdom for big money.
“I was in the hot dog business for a long time. I was burned out,” Potekin said. “In hindsight, I probably just should have taken a few months off. But it was a long road and that was it.”
Doug Sohn, purveyor of Hot Doug’s — the Avondale sausage emporium renowned for its lineup of gourmet hot dog-like creations and duck fat-soaked fries beloved by foodies and fat guys alike — has a lot in common with the hot dog king who came before him.
Like Potekin’s Gold Coast Dogs, Sohn’s namesake sausage stand earned critical acclaim, worldwide recognition and a cultlike following that includes devotees who earned “free hot dogs for life” by getting the Hot Doug’s logo tattooed on their skin.
Sohn even wrote a book and helped wage a successful battle against City Hall to overturn what he called “the silliest law ever” outlawing restaurants from selling foie gras — the fattened duck liver delicacy in one of his most famous sausage concoctions.
And now, Sohn says he’s ready to call it quits.
On Tuesday, Hot Doug himself shocked the sausage-loving universe with his online announcement of his planned “permanent vacation” that means closing his place for good on Oct. 3.
Sohn didn’t offer much of a reason for his plans to close shop after 13 years other than to say, "It's time to go do something else. ... The plan is not to own a restaurant anymore.”
Admittedly, Sohn says he hasn’t completely thought his plan through, joking his future might be in “interpretive dance” if he isn’t already too old for that.
I asked Potekin if he could offer any advice for Sohn — one hot dog superstar to another — before he begins his own life after hot dogs.
“I generally don’t give advice or tell people what to do, but I can talk for five hours about what not to do because I’ve f----- up a lot of things,” Potekin said.
“So I guess I’d tell him that if you have something good, that people like, that’s making money today, you should probably continue to do that. Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t go out and be successful at something else.”
Potekin’s own move to the hot dog afterlife couldn’t have gone better. He went back to the options game with RMB Group, traveling the world giving speeches about investment strategies.
“I’m the luckiest man alive. It’s not work. I enjoy what I do. I love talking to people, and I get to do it all over the world,” he said. “I just got back from giving a talk on a cruise ship, and next week I’ll be in Colombia.”
Still, Potekin has to live with that part of himself that regrets selling his hot dog business.
“I’ve gone to a couple Gold Coast Dogs, and it’s not the same. I feel very bad about leaving,” he said. “I drew that first logo, you know. I feel bad — like I sold off one of my children. I feel bad for the customers I left behind. I miss them. I do daydream about opening another place someday.”
Potekin goes on.
“There’s a saying,” he tells me, “‘Act in haste, repent in leisure.’ When you make a hasty decision, know that you’ll have the rest of your life to regret it. So I highly recommend making no hasty decisions.”
Maybe Sohn should reconsider all he might regret about walking away from his spot atop Chicago’s hot dog hierarchy before it’s too late.
And all his sausage disciples said, “Amen.”
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