- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2011

CHICAGO | This is a dogfight Chicago will relish.

Vienna Beef, one of the world’s most famous hot dog makers, is suing the owner of a rival hot dog company, accusing him of either stealing Vienna’s 118-year-old recipe or lying to customers by claiming he is using it.

The rival is none other than a grandson of one of the two men who founded the company after their hot dogs became a hit at the 1893 World’s Fair.

In this wiener war, one of the only things on which the owners of Vienna Beef and Red Hot Chicago are likely to agree is that you don’t put ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog.

The lawsuit accuses Red Hot Chicago of false advertising, unfair competition and trademark infringement. But it also offers a reminder that hot dogs are no joking matter in Chicago, where the “meal on a bun” is part of local history and where loyalty to one of the region’s 2,000 hot dog stands is passed down from generation to generation.

“This is Chicago, and we take hot dogs seriously,” said Tanya Russell, a mail carrier who stopped at Fast Track, a downtown stand, to deliver some letters and grab a Vienna hot dog before finishing her route.

The fight could be long, in large part because of the legacy at stake.

Scott Ladany’s grandfather arrived as an immigrant from Austria-Hungary and set up a hot dog cart at the World’s Fair. At the time, he “started with little more than hopes, dreams and his sausage-making skills,” attorney Jami Gekas wrote.

The grandfather, Samuel Ladany, eventually helped found the business that is now Vienna Beef. Fast-forward to the early 1980s, when Scott Ladany was leaving the company. He sold his 10 percent stake and agreed not to “use or divulge” any of Vienna’s recipes and, according to the lawsuit, promised not to compete with Vienna for at least 2 1/2 years.

In 1986, after that condition expired, he founded Red Hot Chicago.

Mr. Ladany has declined to comment, but in court documents he insists he did not steal anything and that Red Hot’s recipe is its own. At the same time, he always made it clear that his family history - complete with the World’s Fair photographs and pictures of his grandfather that Vienna had showcased - were going to take center stage at Red Hot Chicago, too.

So, not only did he settle on “A Family Tradition Since 1893” as his company motto, but he also included Vienna Beef’s name right in his advertising literature.

The reason, Ms. Gekas told the judge, is simple: It’s all true.

Vienna Beef CEO Jim Bodman says he worries that the messages will confuse customers.

“He was dancing right up to the line by saying it’s a family tradition,” Mr. Bodman said.

“They want to ride Vienna’s coattails … and sell their product using Vienna’s brand recognition,” Vienna attorney Phillip Reed said recently at a court hearing.

The way hot dog makers see it, recipes are the key to success, just like the formula for Coca-Cola and the secret spices that go into KFC chicken.

Vienna’s 118-year-old recipes are so important to the company that for years they were kept in a vault. Even today, outside vendors who mix the spices and oils “only handle a portion of the blending process.”

That way, “Neither vendor knows the entire process, blend and formulation of the Vienna recipes,” according to the lawsuit.

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