About five years ago, Fred Markoff was adrift, literally, then figuratively. He had just finished up work as a provisions master on a cruise ship, and was looking for an exciting new challenge.
Tired of finishing runner-up for general manager positions at restaurants, Markoff consulted a few friends, including one who had just opened his own place in Tennessee. He told Markoff it was the best thing he'd ever done, and suggested that Markoff do the same.
A few more similar endorsements convinced Markoff to take the plunge and he was inspired to create a "gourmet hot dog and sausage sandwich shop with quality foods and a Belgian-style frites." The original concept, "gourmet fun on a long bun," was trumped when word got out of Markoff's reindeer-meat hot dog.
Soon, customers began flocking, making special trips to to try sausages made of everything from rabbit and veal to elk, chicken, and corned beef. Chicago-style hot dogs and Fred's own Italian beef are also favorites, he said.
Markoff has had periodic discussions with a few television networks regarding his own show or a segment on his shop, though nothing has materialized yet, he said.
In Glenview, customers can count on seeing Markoff in his usual spot: behind the register, ready to take their order and provide a little joke and a quick smile.
Patch: Why do you think fRedhots and Fries been so successful?
Markoff: Because of the uniqueness, because of the quality. In today's day and age, people want value for their dollar; they're willing to pay for a quality product. And it's my experience in all aspects of the restaurant industry, I'm well aware of different types of food and qualities. So I figured I would take a high quality product and put it into a "quick service" environment. I don't like the term "fast food" because fast food denotes the corporate chains and everything in a fryer, and dollar menus. So I carved fRedHots out as a niche operation with quality products – the best items I could find. That's what people have come to expect with our foods.
Patch: How much has it changed since it opened?
Markoff: It's been tweaked and modified and expanded. The original concept was fRedhots and Fries, Gourmet Fun on a Long Bun, and I found a building (on Chestnut St.) that was operating as a "fast food" restaurant. I thought that would be a perfect development lab for this.
We started simply at first with the sausages, burgers, Italian beef (made in-house, my own recipe). And then the next thing we know, we're bringing in reindeer hot dogs for the holiday, and the press catches wind of it and it goes viral worldwide. And we're on every news show and newspaper across the country. We had people driving in, making detours off of I-80 as they're driving across country to come in and try the reindeer meat hot dogs, which is everyday food in Alaska, but something unique in this area. It was a hit, and people are already asking me, "Are you bringing the reindeer back this year, when are they coming in?"
Patch: Did you expect this much success?
Markoff: Honestly, I expected it to be even more successful; I expected lines out the door every day. But in the suburbs, you don't get that. People tend to avoid long lines. In an urban environment, people are willing to wait longer. So it's been good, and people appreciate it. And I've gotten to the point where our marketing is primarily a word of mouth. That's the best and worst thing for you. If you don't continue with your consistent quality, word gets around even more quickly. And that's forced us to do it right every day and try harder the next day.
Patch: Why are Chicago-style eateries so popular in this area, and do you think they would succeed nation-wide?
Markoff: They have evolved over the years, but were born out of the hot dog, which was really popularized in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Because it was cheap eats during the Depression, and you could set up a cart or stand anywhere in the city, every neighborhood had three or four. And it became commonplace foods. But as health codes evolved, those carts disappeared from the landscape. Also, there was a growth of corporate fast food places on a national basis and people moved away from the Chicago hot dog stands. It just kind of morphed into a whole variety of items that you can fry, appetizer-like items – the gyros, the hot dogs, and such.
Would this be successful nationally? No, because every region of the country has their own style of hot dog, their own favorite hot dog brand with the seasonings and flavorings that people grew up with, from the early 20th century. In Chicago, the dominant brand is Vienna beef hot dogs. New York, it's Hebrew National or Sobret. For fRedhots and Fries, I've had thoughts of expanding on a larger basis, but to go into other markets, it would have to be customized to the local market. And that can be done; it just takes a good operator to do it.
The other food that is Chicago-centric is the Italian beef sandwich. Nowhere else in the country is there such thing as an Italian Beef. Other parts of the country have variations, but the Italian beef sandwich was born out of necessity in the early 20th century, when Italian families had to feed the whole family, but couldn't afford very much! So they just roasted some beef slowly, sliced it real thin and made gravy for it with Italian seasonings. We developed our own recipe based on some of the best ones that I had, so it's a real popular item.
Patch: What is your customer service philosophy? Most owners don't take such a hands-on approach.
Markoff: I created fRedhots to be the kind of place that I would like to go to a few days a week, or eat there on a regular basis. Friendly, community-oriented, and get to know your customers. When take your order, we write every order down so we get it correct, but we also get your name, so that we know whom we're serving it to, rather calling a number. We deliver it out to your table so that you're getting what you expected. And that's one of the focuses. And people love it. We have a really strong core of regular customers, we know what they eat every day and we try to get them to try different things. They know what they like and they keep coming back for it.
Patch: How would you characterize your relationship with Glenview?
Markoff: Oh, it's been great! When people realized that we were different from what had previously been at this location for the last 20 years, they started coming back. The frites that we serve are the best they've ever had, the hot dogs are made to order so they taste good, and it's a quality service. It's a locally owned and operated service, not a corporate chain.
Patch: What are the most popular menu items? The most unique?
Markoff: The hot dog is No. 1. Some of our sausages are very unique, though people haven't taken to them quite like I expected. The other unique item is New Orleans-inspired debris po'boy. Since we roast our own Italian beef here, we make the gravy for it, which is made with all the trimmings and pan drippings. After the gravy sits in the stockpot for 5-6 hours, we strain it to get the clear au jus for dipping the beef in. We have this leftover meat, this shredded, finely seasoned meat. I decided to do something with it, and it's been a hit since the beginning. People love it and a secondary item is we put it over a plate of our frites with barbeque sauce and some Merk's cheddar cheese on top. That's called our barbeque debris frites, and that has a dedicated following.
One thing customers need to do when they walk in the door is check out the menu board by the register that has all the daily specials on it, cause that's a rotating item. Or check the Web site in advance at www.fredhots.com.