Vienna Beef wins Wrigley hot dog race

Vienna Beef, which opened its first Chicago store in the late 19th century, returns its hot dogs to Wrigley Field this season. (March 28, 2011)

You can’t tell the hot dogs without a scorecard.

Wrigley Field is swapping vendors. Or rather, swapping back.

Vienna Beef, which opened its first store in Chicago in 1894, this season will once again become the official hot dog of the Chicago Cubs. It replaces Sara Lee’s Ball Park franks. Vienna dogs were served at Wrigley prior to 1982.

“There is some history there, with Vienna Beef being part of Wrigley Field,” said Wally Hayward, Cubs’ chief sales and marketing officer.

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Dogs will be served on plain or poppy-seed buns from Gonnella Baking Co., which is celebrating its 125th anniversary in Chicago this year.

Hot dogs are the No. 1 food item sold at Wrigley Field, with more than 1 million per season, Hayward said.

“To us, it’s a big deal,” said Jim Bodman, chief executive of Vienna Beef. “It’s validation. We’re a little company … we’re not a huge international marketer who sells products by advertising more. We sell more by making a great product.

“Are people going to buy more of our stuff in the grocery stores? Yeah, probably. But it makes us feel good that we’re doing the right thing.”

Another major change for fans root, root, rooting for the Cubbies will be the pizza. D’Agostino’s Pizza, which opened its first location in 1968 down the street from Wrigley, replaces Connie’s Pizza as the brand served at the park.

A similar move will happen at the White Sox home, U.S. Cellular Field, where Nestle’s DiGiorno pizza swaps in for Connie’s. A request for comment from Connie’s was not returned.

Food changes at Wrigley came about as contracts with existing vendors expired, Hayward said.

It’s important to use Chicago-based food vendors because about 37 percent of Wrigley fans each year come from outside Illinois, he said, and “they’re looking for an authentic Chicago experience.”

Bodman, of Vienna Beef, said the Cubs might have gotten better deals from big companies, rather than smaller, local ones. “That the Cubs have gone out of their way to do business with a lot of Chicago companies speaks highly of them,” he said.

Other changes at Wrigley include hamburgers by Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap and jumbo chicken wings from The Fifty/50 restaurant of Chicago. Also, Enjoy Life Foods will be the supplier of gluten-free, allergy-friendly food. Lifeway Food will provide its frozen kefir, a low-fat soft-serve treat — an alternative to ice cream — that is 99 percent lactose-free and gluten-free.

“We want to be sensitive to the various allergies that people have and allow them to have products when they’re at the ballpark,” Hayward said.

Chef David Burns, executive chef at Levy Restaurants, which handles most of the food for Wrigley Field, said he started looking at changing the menu shortly after the season ended last year.

Direction from the Ricketts family, majority owner of the Cubs, was to look at using local vendors and offer more healthy food options, Burns said. In addition to allergy-sensitive foods, the park will offer a vegetable chopped salad and assorted fresh vegetables with hummus, he said.

On the South Side, new offerings at U.S. Cellular Field include an Irish pub, cheesesteak sandwiches and tamale carts. The park will change its Beers of the World locations to Midwest Brews, featuring craft beers from neighboring states. Wow Bao, new last season, is adding Mongolian beef to its offerings.

No major changes are planned at either stadium for popcorn, peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, holds a 5 percent interest in the entity that owns the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

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