A father-daughter team is taking Chicago’s storied sausage scene by storm, bringing creative combinations, fresh energy, and social media savvy to the Bronzeville neighborhood. The Hot Dog Box, a newish operation from founder Bobby Morelli and his nine-year-old daughter Brooklyn, debuted last August inside a fire-engine red shipping container inside the Boxville marketplace just east of 51st and the Green Line. Now the accolades are rolling in, and the team is preparing for a slew of new offerings this summer.
The Hot Dog Box opened with a tight two-dog selection: a traditional Chicago-style sausage dragged through the garden, and a creation dubbed the Bronzeville Bourbon Dog, with smokey barbecue sauce, sport peppers, bacon, and carrot-cabbage slaw. The latter has quickly become a best seller, but now shares a menu with other unusual combinations like a Compass Steak dog (four-ounce filet mignon hot dog, shrimp, spinach, creamy chipotle hot honey sauce) and a smoked teriyaki salmon hot dog (spinach, teriyaki sauce, green onions, toasted sesame seeds).
Chicagoans have so embraced Morelli’s decadent hot dogs that he’s aiming to introduce a new swath of options for the summer and a special menu available only during Sunday brunch. He’s in the midst of recipe testing for a chicken-and-waffle dog, and is considering Brooklyn’s suggestion of a pizza hot dog. The business is bustling enough that he’s already thinking about expanding beyond the box to a full location with indoor dining. When that eventually happens, he wants the container to remain.
“I’ve been searching for my life’s purpose and hot dogs are my channel,” he says. “If I have to go sell hot dogs on the corner to not have the pressure and stress of corporate America, I’m going to sell hot dogs and be at peace.”
The journey to hot dog greatness has been fraught for Morelli. A recording artist and web designer, he watched his livelihoods vanish over the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. A tour for his newly released album, Life on Replay, was canceled, and business clients seeking to cut down on costs began dropping away. When a partner backed out of a planned cookies and ice cream business in a Boxville container just three weeks before its launch, Morelli seized on the humble hot dog.
Morelli says he never anticipated the huge public reaction to his menu, the box (equipped with a giant Connect Four game for customers to play while they wait), or Brooklyn, his pint-sized assistant. The pair have become fixtures on the Hot Dog Box’s Instagram account, giggling over dad jokes and busting out dance moves inside the 400-square-foot restaurant. Brooklyn has become so popular among those in the know that customers will leave tips for her even when she’s not working.
Working side-by-side with his eldest daughter has given Morelli a chance to show her how to work hard for what she wants. He didn’t have a relationship with his own father growing up, and now he and his wife feel its important to teach self sufficiency to Brooklyn and her sister, five-year-old Bailey.
“She’s nine, so I’m not expecting it to be a life-long decision,” he says. “But I look at it as a part of my legacy. [She’ll] always be able to know how to go out and make money with her own two hands — she doesn’t have to be dependent on anyone.”
The Hot Dog Box, 330 E. 51st Street inside Boxville Marketplace, Open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
- Bobby Morelli is the sausage king of Bronzeville [Reader]