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The Hot Dog Box Will Pack Up at Portage Park

The Hot Dog Box, the sausage stand that rocketed to local fame in the two years since its founding inside a storage container in Bronzeville, will permanently close its storefront in December, nearly a year after its relocation to Portage Park. Owner Bobby Morelli announced the impending closure Tuesday on social media, alerting fans and followers that its last day is set for Friday, December 16.

Following the restaurant’s opening in January at 4020 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Morelli says local patronage became a concern. “We had a lot of fanfare and people traveling in to experience the Hot Dog Box, but not necessarily as much support from the local community,” he says. “That was one of the deciding factors in saying hey, we need to reassess and do something different, turn the page for another chapter because the area is just not conducive to what we offer and how we offer it at this time.”

Morelli, assisted by his then nine-year-old daughter Brooklyn, founded the Hot Dog Box in August 2020 inside a 400-square-foot container in the Boxville marketplace, just east of 51st and the Green Line. The original menu featured just two dogs: a traditional Chicago-style version dragged through the garden, and the Bronzeville Bourbon Dog, a filet mignon sausage smothered in smokey barbecue sauce, sport peppers, and bacon.

After word began to spread about the exciting new contender in Chicago’s competitive sausage scene, coverage in local media turned a stream of customers into a flowing river. Morelli also courted fans on social media, sharing family-friendly videos and posts that charmed fans — including many who were eager to support a Black-owned business. As lines outside the stand grew longer, the menu expanded as well, integrating loaded submissions such as a smoked teriyaki salmon dog and Compass Steak Dog topped with shrimp and spinach.

By spring 2021, it became clear to Morelli that demand had outpaced his resources in the shipping container. He settled on a stand-alone location in Portage Park, though the nine-month build-out process took longer than he anticipated, so the storefront — designed to evoke a year-round family picnic a la 1993 drama Poetic Justice — didn’t open until around 10 months later. The original Bronzeville location would close in early 2022.

But once the doors were open, more complications followed. In June, Morelli told his social media followers that the organizers behind the Windy City Hot Dog Fest neglected to invite him to their inaugural event, which was set to occur on the Hot Dog Box’s own street. When chamber leaders began receiving negative online feedback about the apparent oversight, Morelli says they apologized for that and asked him to delete his comments. He did so but declined a belated invitation to participate in the festival.

A rare Black restaurant owner in the area, Morelli cannot dismiss race as one of several factors that contributed to the closure. “I don’t want to say that’s the be-all-end-all, but the area is still growing and may not be as ready as I thought for diversity and inclusion,” he says. “More people love us than not, but I have seen a lot of negative stuff. we have dealt with racism, even in our store… As a Black man in business, it’s hard not to recognize that when you experience it.”

The restaurant also began to receive critical comments related to cost: each of its sausage creations goes for $14.75. A combination of nationwide inflation and pandemic-related economic pressures has forced many Chicago restaurants to raise prices and Morelli is far from the first to field criticism on the subject. Though he understands that his prices aren’t what locals are used to paying for a hot dog, Morelli maintains that it’s necessary to maintain the quality of his ingredients and cover the labor involved in making sauces and fresh toppings.

Despite the storefront’s closure, the Hot Dog Box brand remains active and will continue to sell packaged sausages, flavored popcorn, and merchandise online. Morelli declined to detail his forthcoming plans but wants to assure fans that the company will make moves down the line.

“Even with [the closure], it’s not a bad moment,” he says. “I went through all the emotions that come with the understanding that we’re at this point… Even as the underdog in what we do, we’re still going to overcome this particular obstacle. The future is still bright for the Hot Dog Box.”

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