As told to Patrick J. Sauer
Nineteen thirty-nine is frequently touted by cineastes as the greatest year in movie history, but The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind weren't the only beloved institutions that debuted in Hollywood that year. Paul and Betty Pink borrowed $50 to buy a perambulator cart and set up shop on the corner of La Brea and Melrose, selling a 10-cent chili dog with all the fixings to studio moguls and hoboes alike. Sixty years later, daughter-in-law Gloria Pink (an owner, along with husband Richard and sister-in-law Beverly Pink Wolfe) decided to raise the profile of the eatery by aggressively marketing the restaurant's Los Angeles roots. It worked. Pink's now sells approximately 1,500 dogs a day. Add burgers, bottles of Grape Crush, fries, catering, and licensing, and the revenue rings up to some $2.5 million a year. Not bad for a family business affectionately referred to as "the little hot dog stand that could."
Most people don't know that there really is a Pink family. It's been serendipitous for the business. I almost always wear pink; I'm glad it's the hot color this year.
My mother-in-law, Betty, was the real entrepreneur in the early days, the creative forward thinker who always envisioned that we could do more with the business. My father-in-law, Paul, kept it simple and was fond of saying, "After 40 years you start to make a few bucks." He was content and people loved him. When Paul passed away, his obituary was prominently featured in the Los Angeles Times.
I became a manager in 1984 and started behind the counter to learn the choreographed chaos of our tiny space. I quickly found I love the promotions, like taking food to Everybody Loves Raymond or The West Wing. It's usually free the first time, but they always call back. We have a good time here. I never know what's next, I even landed in the pages of an Archie comic watching Jughead polish off a dozen dogs.
Things exploded in 1999, the 60th anniversary. We held a six-day celebration, selling the all-beef dogs for 60 cents for 60 minutes at 6 p.m. and got celebrities like Erik Estrada and Henry Winkler to serve them in exchange for a charitable donation. The media was all over it; suddenly there were lines down the block and Rolls-Royces and pickup trucks in the parking lot. Patrons love mingling with stars like Bill Cosby and Laurence Fishburne. Martha Stewart created her own dog that includes sauerkraut, sour cream, and bacon.
Another big success was when I started taking hot dogs to radio shows. Deejays ended up inviting me on the air to tell Pink's story. Los Angeles doesn't preserve its history, so being around since the Great Depression has made us a living landmark. Orson Welles holds the legend for most chili dogs devoured in a single sitting: 18. Things change so fast in L.A.; our customers like to know they can always count on Pink's.
We do one or two charity events a month, setting up a booth right alongside Spago. We don't skimp with little hors d'oeuvres, either; guests get the full hot dog. The gourmet chefs love not waiting in line. It's nice for us because we get promotion in a completely positive venue. It's better than paid advertising.
Our sales volume has been up 8% to 10% every year since 1999. Pink's has to have volume. The profits come from a product that basically costs between $2.40 and $4. Building volume is the key strategy. There is untapped potential for the business, and it's time to expand it. Richard is going to leave the real estate business in the next few years and devote himself full-time as well, so we will definitely be a lot broader. We wrote a treatment for a sitcom at Pink's that's with Aaron Spelling's people. He's a regular.
You can't replicate the experience of eating at Pink's, which is why we've never franchised. People call all the time, from as far away as Singapore, but we don't have any plans at the present time. The flagship has to be the full experience. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't do it right. We can't remodel to make more room because the open-air grill was grandfathered in when the zoning laws were changed. A Pink's franchise would never have the same line out front.
The line is a trippy, interesting thing. People will wait up to an hour for a dog, talking and getting to know the people in line next to them, which doesn't happen often in L.A. It's fun, all part of the Pink's experience. Expanding next door might ensure less waiting in line, but it will change the whole dynamic. People drive by, see the line, want to know what's going on, stop, and get a dog.
It's the all-natural casing that gives the Pink's dog the snap. We've been buying from a local company, Hoffy, since day one. The dogs have to be cooked to a certain temperature, and the chili has to be stirred just right. If a franchise were to serve a dog that is chewy, overcooked, or with broken skin, that would hurt our business.
We are licensing with companies that will maintain the integrity of the food and pride in customer service. Our dogs are served in the Hollywood Park Casino, the Greek Theatre, and we are expecting to go into the new Bicycle Casino in L.A. and the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas, all high-traffic venues.
We teach our employees to only say yes to customers. We have no portion controls. Customers mix and match our 21 toppings any way they want on their hot dogs. I've learned from our employees, as well. We started offering the Guadalajara Dog because they were eating it on their break. It's got relish, onions, tomatoes, and it's topped with sour cream. It's very popular.
Pink's reinvents itself constantly. Our competition is every fast-food restaurant in town. We're always adding menu items like the Lord of the Rings Dog, which is a 10-inch stretch dog threaded through onion rings with barbecue sauce. Variety gets people returning to see what's new. I want customers to say, "What is that Lord of the Rings Dog?" It's in their mind that, "I have to come back."
Here's a funny Hollywood story. Jason Alexander comes in a lot, and one night he offered me the house seats, which I paid for, for The Producers. He was playing Max Bialystock and for whatever reason, that night there was a problem with the set, so Jason stepped out in front of the curtain. He announces that he wants to introduce a friend and says, "Gloria Pink, where are you?" I waved. The crowd gave me an ovation. It's funny because I never thought I'd be in hot dogs.