Vienna Beef factory tour: This is how Chicago's sausage is made
Once you've seen how a hot dog is manufactured, will you still eat one?
Further down the hot-dog production line, the cacophony of hulking steel mixers and grinders roaring like dinosaurs threatens to drown out Carlino's voice. Precise measurements of fat and lean meat along with a secret mix of seasonings, corn syrup and ice (to add water and keep the meat chilled) go into what's called a "vacuum bowl chopper," which Carlino describes as "a giant Cuisinart chopper with a vacuum." The concave piece of machinery turns the raw ingredients into a uniform emulsion that could easily be mistaken for peanut butter.
Eventually that brown paste is funneled into a "linker." The machine injects the emulsion into a Saran Wrap–like mold that provides the familiar shape for skinless dogs. Workers hang the wrapped links from rolling "cages," each of which hold up to 600 pounds, and are wheeled into one of eight hickory-fueled smokehouses in the Vienna Beef factory. Carlino swings open a giant smokehouse door sending a hot-dog-infused fog wafting into my face.
The warm air steams up my glasses and I lose the group for a moment as Carlino routes the tour up a flight of stairs. The noise of the factory floor recedes. We walk past some administrative offices and into a small kitchen. A table in the center has sliced hot dogs of various types labeled on paper plates and two types of chili, which Vienna also makes at the plant.
"This is where we try the product that was made yesterday for quality-assurance purposes," Carlino says. The tour is allowed to try samples alongside "the Q.A. group," among them a "sausage meister" named Crystal who has been with Vienna Beef for 40 years. Her father was a longtime employee with the company, moving from security into a position in the plant. Crystal started in the Factory Store at age 14 and worked her way up. I ask her if she is sick of eating hot dogs day in and day out for decades. "No!" she says. "Believe it or not, they're in my freezer at home. We have them at barbecues and picnics."
Every once in a while, the Q.A. group tastes something in a sausage that's just not right. "It's infrequent, but it happens," Carlino says. "Fat, bite, juiciness, flavor, texture. The casing might be too tough."
"Could be too much salt. Could be not enough," another member of the team adds.
"If that happens, we go back and check cycles. We have an extensive amount of paperwork that follows each product as it goes through the manufacturing process," Carlino says. "Meat is not uniform. You're constantly adjusting."
Swinging the tour past the small crew who manufacture Vienna's chili and soups, Carlino makes small talk with the foreman before we head to packing. Here, the mold is removed from the smoked sausages and they're wrapped for retail sale. Packs of Parkview franks, a brand Vienna Beef makes for Aldi, stream by on a conveyor belt and under a metal detector that can immediately shut down the line if so much as a shaving from one of the machines somehow found its way into the product.
Ushering the tour off the factory floor, Carlino instructs us to throw the hair nets in the garbage and toss the coats in a bin to be laundered. The tour is over, but the Vienna experience is not complete without a trip to the Factory Store & Deli. It's lunchtime and Carlino hands out meal tickets good for a hot dog, fries and a drink.
This is where you face the inevitable post-tour dilemma: Now that you've seen how the sausage is made, now that you can no longer live in encased-meat ignorance, will you still eat a hot dog?
RECOMMENDED: Chicago's best hot dogs reviewed
RECOMMENDED: A conversation about Chicago hot dog culture