Bobby Morelli has no professional culinary experience. He’s an R&B and pop recording artist with a web design and marketing agency whose plans for those projects tanked with the onset of the pandemic. He’s also a borderline pescatarian who since August has more or less become the sausage king of Bronzeville.
That’s when, after just a few weeks of planning, he threw himself into The Hot Dog Box, a steel shipping container fronting 51st street at Boxville Marketplace, with a growing menu of loaded wieners whose ambition and audacity hasn’t been seen since the glory days of Hot Doug’s.
Morelli released a new album, Life on Replay, last April but quickly had to cancel scheduled tour dates in Atlanta, Miami, and Dallas. A lot of his small business clients closed or downsized, and he was searching for the proverbial pandemic pivot when he teamed up with a partner to open a cookies and ice cream concept at the seven-year-old container market. Then, three weeks before opening, his partner who was to handle the cookie end of the business bailed, and Morelli scrambled to come up with a new business model.
“What else can I do that would be simple but still fun that would make this business be year round vs. seasonal,” he says. “I was like ‘Well, hot dogs.’ I’m walking through the grocery store and I’m thinking, ‘What can I do to make a hot dog that stands out?'”
Morelli opened on August 1 with a classic Chicago-style Vienna Beef natural casing dog, dragged through the garden, and another Vienna dog dressed far off the traditional template.
“I love to drench my hot dog in barbecue sauce,” he says. “My wife and I make a special bourbon barbecue sauce, sweet with a hint of smokiness. I would just eat it plain but I knew I needed more texture.” He layered on a carrot-cabbage slaw, sport peppers, and crumbled bacon, and dubbed it the Bronzeville Bourbon Dog, which remains his best seller.
Morelli was looking to hire outside help, but instead brought on his nine-year-old daughter Brooklyn, who was already a regular presence on his recordings and videos. When she wasn’t in her online classes, she helped taking orders, washing dishes, and shopping. Together they’ve become the father-daughter Instagram (@thehotdogboxchicago) face of the business, cracking corny jokes and playing Connect Four by the takeout window. Brooklyn takes a starring turn in the full choreographed video they released during the slow winter months.
Her celebrity threatens to overtake her father’s. “People started asking for Brooklyn on days when she’s not here,” he says.
Morelli experimented with new dog varieties over the months, but a key adoption was a four-ounce filet mignon dog over the winter, with a pronounced heft and beefiness that could stand up to increasingly dense strata of toppings. These include the surf-and-turf Compass Steak Dog, piled with snappy shrimp, spinach, and a creamy chipotle honey sauce he started to bottle and sell along with the cranberry honey mustard that appeared on the Prairie Blues Steak dog, with collard greens, carrots, and feta cheese. Morelli also brought on a salmon sausage with teriyaki and jerk expressions, and added chicken and vegan sausage substitute options.
He’s still in R&D mode, currently testing recipes for summer limited editions, like a chicken-and-waffle dog, and a steak dog with Moroccan-style tomato and onion relish, feta, sour cream, and spinach. He’s also toying with the idea of an alligator dog, which he worries might be ahead of its time in the neighborhood, but he didn’t come to Bronzeville to not push things.
“It’s definitely gonna be out there,” he says. “But it’ll still make sense.” v