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Monday, March 05, 2007

What the Hells? An Investigation Into Why Your M'Dawg Hot Dog Just Cost $8

UPDATE: The Washington Post realizes that to sit on this hot dog pricing story is to sit on Watergate! I guess this makes me Woodward. Or Bernstein. At the very least it makes me Woodstein.

I've been more excited about the opening of M'Dawg Haute Dogs than a vegetarian should be. But I figured they'd offer a veggie "haute dog," increasing my cheap neighborhood dining options. That it's owned by the same folks who run Amsterdam Falafelshop was a good omen. So on Saturday afternoon we ambled down for our inaugural visit. There it was on the menu: The Virgin Dawg, no meat. Brilliant. And it only costs(NEEDLE SCRATCH ON THE RECORD)...$5.50?! Add in the side of fries for $2.75 and nearly $2 for a medium soda and I was shocked to find myself digging into my wallet for a tenspot. Well, surely this was going to be the Chanel suit of veggie dogs, earning its "haute" moniker and price tag, nestled in a tasty bun next to a generous pile of golden fries. Eh, not so much. It was a thin veggie dog no different in size or savoriness than the frozen Morningstar Farms links I get from Safeway, plunked in a potato bun. The small boat of fries could have fit into my palm. Across the table, my Significant Other was eyeballing his brat and soda skeptically, looking bemused to find himself $8 lighter considering what was in front of him.

None of it made sense: how could the same people who serve up such delicious and appropriately sized portions at Amsterdam be peddling such overpriced fare across the street? Sure the rent for Adams Morgan retail space has to be ridiculous but that doesn't mean you can just charge $6 or $8 for a hot dog and call it a day. A quick Google search indicated I wasn't alone. People were getting downright pissy about M'Dawg prices and veggie dog quality.

So I called the shop yesterday. The co-owners weren't around but a polite guy took the message. A tip of the hat to co-owner Arianne Bennett calling me back within a matter of minutes, considering the message said "blogger" and "prices." Bennett is as chill as you'd expect for someone who, along with husband Scott, brought tasty and convenient falafel to the masses two years ago at Amsterdam. She didn't strike me as the type to sell $8 wieners with the sole intent of bolstering her ivory backscratcher collection. Thus unfolded the plaintive tale of The Little Guy (er, Gal):

* She started by acknowledging that the veggie dog "isn't a good one to judge prices on." Why? Because my grumpy pronouncement that it tasted no different than the Morningstar Farms ones I buy was dead on. It is a Morningstar Farm hot dog. Until her husband can come up with a superlative, handmade veggie dog, they're using the most popular mass-produced brand as determined by polling on the Adams Morgan listserv, Arianne said.

* M'kay, but that doesn't really explain the prices. Turns out, the sausages sold at M'Dawg come from different producers around the country who hand-separate the meat from the bone, as a butcher would. Arianne said their pre-launch research indicated this is crucial because a mechanically separated dog means you're likely getting bone and all other nasty bits in your dog. And several of M'Dawg's sausages come from organic, wild pig farms where Wilbur enjoys more creature comforts than his industrial pig farm counterparts before meeting his demise. Think more Whole Foods, less 7-Eleven or streetcorner cart.

* But here's the main thing compounding the price problem: because M'Dawg is such a small operation, their meat orders don't hit the 1,500-pound mark that most vendors require to ship a full pallet at a discounted rate. So M'Dawgs has to pay their suppliers retail and they have to have the stuff FedExed to them. "We're not getting any kind of deal," Arianne said. And as for their half-smoke costing about 45 cents more than the same ones at Ben's Chili Bowl? "I'm not paying U Street rent," she said, "I'm paying 18th Street rent." Finally, with their bevy of gourmet toppings (available for another buck--and which I later noticed the girl at the register had just automatically charged me without asking), they think they offer something more for late-night diners than the standard undercooked slice of pizza. "It's kind of a higher-end outfit," she said of her shop.

There might be some good news in the future. "It is possible prices will go down," Arianne said. When the Bennetts opened Amsterdam Falafelshop they started "at the bare bones" prices and then had to raise them. "That made people really unhappy," she said. How unhappy? "They were getting mad at the people working the register. We thought this time that if we started at a high enough price, we might be able to get better deals eventually and lower the prices."

So there it is. Apparently, it's hard out there for an independent hot dog pimp. I suppose it's no different than the way I pick which hardware store to patronize. Rather than stepping foot in Home Depot, I will always pay at least a third more at 17th Street Hardware, because it's a local, independent and friendly shop. Same should go for hot dogs too, I guess.


Blogger I-66 said...

How do I put this...

That doesn't look anything like any kind of dog, hot, haute, or [censored]. What are those on top of the dog? Gourmet toppings my [censored]!

2:11 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

So as a fellow veggie, should I go out and try it for myself?

2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a nice piece of writing and reporting. Thank you!

3:14 PM  
Blogger Brunch Bird said...

I-66- I sort of got performance anxiety when confronted with all of the Uptown topping options.
I opted for bbq beans and mustard to customize myself a little dog called "The Summer Picnic."

Heather-That's the tricky thing: you can just as easily and much more cheaply microwave yourself a Morningstar if you want a fairly straightforward dog. However, if you're in the mood for wacky Uptown toppings, they're a good option. (And as I told I-66, there are a gajillion possible combos if you don't panic and reflexively reach for the mustard.) Just expect to pay more than it's worth for the time being until they either improve the dog or lower the price.

Anon- Thanks! The Washington Post has Walter Reed. I'm on the hot dog beat.

3:31 PM  
Blogger wharman said...

Superb reporting! I've been complaining to anyone who will listen about the high price of these suckers. Thanks for figuring it out! As a consumer, I still would like to see their prices drop by about 50%. Bone pieces or not, my sausage seemed like just a regular thin sausage. I get the same or better at Camden Yards for $4.
All that said, I love the Falafel Shop and had high hopes for this place (although I must admit I enjoyed the fast-food Indian that occupied this spot before the dogs).

3:49 PM  
Blogger Twoste said...

Pork is yummy.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous etcetera said...

this reminds me of Jimmy Ts where i always get a bagel and then i watch them reach in to the Lender's Bagels bag behind the counter and toss it in the toaster and i think to myself... why did i come here again? at least they dont charge $8 at Jimmy Ts for a bagel.

5:48 PM  
Blogger I-66 said...

Oh those are beans. Okay, that makes me feel a little better. I'm no herbivore, obviously, so I was freaked out for a moment there.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Sweet said...

I love that you called them. Most people would have just written about how much the high prices sucked, but it's awesome that you got to the bottom of it!

10:12 PM  
Blogger someone said...

"We thought this time that if we started at a high enough price, we might be able to get better deals eventually and lower the prices"

Translation: we really hope people will pay for hotdogs at our arbitrarily set high prices.

11:02 PM  
Anonymous rcr said...

Whatevs, I eat there line 3 times a week now. Or more. The hot dog chili alone is worth extra money. I have several friends who've gotten the $20 Kobe hot dog and say that it's worth it. Also, if you buy 8 dogs, the 9th is free. That place is the best thing to happen to Adams Morgan since Crush closed.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It fascinates me that we can have a discussion about the pricing integrity of hot dawgs when the very consumption of the things creates a dilemma in the first place. Our insides are calling out for help...

8:56 PM  
Blogger Brunch Bird said...

Hey, don't look at me. I'm the soy eater. RCR's the one with the crying insides.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous rcr said...

My insides are calling out for another chili dog.

11:22 PM  
Blogger DisgruntledLawStudent said...

Their tater tots are awesome. But picked off the bone or not, I thought the prices were fairly offensive. It's a hotdog, not pate. And admittedly using Morningstar farms veggie dogs yet still charging 5.50 seems kind of odd to me. If it's the condiments people love and will pay for, charge 2.50 for the veggie dog a 2 bucks for the condiments! Just sayin'.

2:15 PM  

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