The anatomy of a (really big) hot dog

Oct 31, 2016

Planning regulations in Johnson City, Tennessee produced a 26-foot bun and frankfurter made of brick, and it’s the talk of the town.

By Richard Massey Managing Editor

Johnson City is a quaint place of 66,000 people near the Blue Ridge Mountains in northeast Tennessee. Perhaps best known as the childhood home of football coach Steve Spurrier, and for its ties to popular soft drink Mountain Dew, Johnson City has recently added a new claim to fame – a 26-foot hot dog made of brick.

A key piece of the branding “trade dress” of beloved regional fast food chain Pal’s Sudden Service, the hot dog, and a companion hamburger, had to comply with the city’s Design Overlay District, which says that 75 percent of the exterior building must be brick or naturally quarried stone.

That put a big wrinkle in the restaurant’s plans, since the food art is typically made of fiberglass. In assessing the situation, Pal’s soon realized that stone was never really an option. So Pal’s, a 29-location chain based in Kingsport, opted for brick.

“When we saw that we weren’t going to get them to give, we said, ‘We’ve got lemons and how do we make lemonade,’” says Pal’s president and CEO, Thom Crosby.

Pal’s mounted a national search, and found fewer than a dozen companies with the resources to do the job. The list was narrowed down to three, and then to one, Images in Brick in Lincoln, Nebraska.

And that’s when things got interesting.

“This was a very unusual project – quite out of the ordinary,” says Jay Tschetter, founder and president of Images in Brick.

While most of Tschetter’s pieces are essentially “in relief,” the hot dog was “in the round.” As a result, Tschetter had to create a rotating sling system so that the work – centered on a fiberglass core filled with poly foam – was suspended while brick was applied to all sides.

He originally tried using wet material and bending it to the contours of the design. That didn’t work, so instead he applied fired brick and used a masonry saw to cut in the design. All told, Tschetter took about four months and used about 2,000 bricks to complete the hot dog. It and the hamburger, at a combined 6,500 pounds, were then trucked more than 1,000 miles to their destination in Tennessee.

The restaurant opened in early September.

When asked by The Zweig Letter what he got out of the experience, Tschetter laughed and said, “I can brick just about anything. By the time I was done, I thought maybe I’ll do state fairs – corn on the cob and cotton candy.”

Pal’s said that all told, the 75 percent brick construction regulation cost about $250,000. And even though Pal’s had to sacrifice some of its branding – the building’s pill blue exterior, for example – Crosby said it was worth it.

“We think it turned out to be a good site for it, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback on it, and we’re having fun with it,” he says.

Looking into the future, if Pal’s wants to expand into yet another area where there are planning restrictions and the company has to again build in brick, it won’t be starting from scratch.

“We captured all the how-to,” Crosby says.

Senior city planner Angie Charles, citing code section 6.30.1, says the overlay district – which calls for greenways, underground signage, and screened mechanical systems – was created to “establish higher environmental, aesthetic, and design standards,” and that the district has been in effect for just over a year.

In essence, the hot dog was the test case for the code’s effectiveness.

“Pal’s is a perfect example,” Charles says. “The hot dog’s been a topic of conversation in town. Everyone loves it.”

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