Hot dog junkies and connoisseurs had a very bad day in Chicago in Winter 2008 when Sara Lee Corporation announced it was exiting the kosher meat business. It further announced that it was closing a facility that processes kosher hot dogs and meat under the brands Best’s Kosher, Sinai Kosher, Shofar and Wilno. This businesslike pronouncement about outsourcing and earnings for fiscal second quarter, belied an organization with a 123- year history and fans whose numbers were legion.
Best’s Kosher Franks were a part of Chicago’s history, folklore and culture. That is what you ate if you saw a ball game at Wrigley Field or at Comiskey Park. Those hot dogs rated number one in plenty of blind taste tests over the years. They were most likely the second most well-known dog in Chicago behind Vienna Beef. Superdawg, a Chicago institution in itself, sold Best Kosher franks. It’s a far sadder world we live in after the Best’s Kosher plant on Pershing Road closed its doors.
It truly is the end of an era. Here’s how it started. Isaac Oscherwitz fled oppression and poverty in Eastern Europe and came to America in 1886. With his five sons, he started a sausage-making business.
When their father, Isaac, died in 1925, two of those sons, Harry and Phillip, moved to Chicago and opened up something they called Best’s Kosher. It remained a family owned and run business until 1993 when it was sold to Sara Lee. We already know what happened after that.
Isaac Oscherwitz’s great-granddaughter, Susan Berger, wrote “The End of a Chicago Tradition: Is Absolutely Nothing Sacred” for the January 23, 2009 edition of the “Chicago Tribune.” In this piece she recalls the long history of the predominately family-owned and -run business. She called the closing by Sara Lee “a loss not only for my family, but for the millions of Jews who keep kosher and the many millions who don’t but learned to love my family’s hot dogs.”
Susan Berger’s father, Sheldon Sternberg ran the Chicago company opened after their father died, Best’s Kosher Sausage Company. It successfully survived the Depression. Sternberg ran the company with other relatives. He was ahead of his time in introducing the first low-fat, low-salt hot dog.
She writes that she and her siblings all worked at the factory from the time they were 12.
In 1993, it was her father that brokered the sale of Best’s Kosher to Sara Lee. They were all proud of the company which had annual sales of $93 million. They trusted that it would be in solid hands. She concluded by saying that any business going under is a tragedy, but a business built on the backs of one family for more than 100 years is especially so. And there are fewer choices for those keeping kosher. And plenty of people will be missing the Best dog.