This story of happenstance involves a 101-year-old Chicago sausage maker, an 84-year-old local Italian deli and Home Depot.
It’s a story that could take place only in Chicago, and it’s the kind of story that makes me love this city, somehow, even more. Sure, there’s the sting of February cold and as much corruption as there are pinstripes on Ald. Edward Burke’s suits. But as a kid from a very small town, I find myself forever fixated on things that native Chicagoans take for granted.
Take Home Depot hot dogs. If you grew up here, you might think it’s perfectly normal for the nearest outlet of the home improvement chain to contain a humble hot dog stand by the exit doors.
It’s not. Some locations around the United States have food stands, but most are out in the parking lot, independent of the hardware store.
But in Chicago, Fixin’ Franks is as much part of the Home Depot experience as wandering concrete-paved aisles or the ubiquitous bright orange. It’s a small operation run by Conley Shirley, and housed in a handful of Home Depot locations scattered around Chicago and its suburbs. (Shirley also happens to be a deeply private person, and declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Fans of the stands — and there are many of them — might not even know they have a name, because there’s rarely a clear, visible sign. Many locals refer to them as Home Depot hot dogs or simply Depot dogs.
Regardless of which location you choose, know that Fixin’ Franks is a decidedly bare bones outfit. There’s usually only one person working behind the counter, and the tiny menu features only four kinds of sausages, an Italian beef, Chicago-style tamales, nachos, bottled drinks and chips.
But to the faithful, there is something deeply comforting about a well-timed sausage from Fixin’ Franks.
For many years, I just assumed its convenient location by the exit doors of Home Depot explained the stand’s popularity. Usually when shopping there, I’m stressed beyond belief — either something broke, or I’m moving and just realized I need 10 more cardboard boxes immediately. Stopping to eat is the last thing on my mind. Yet, as I walk through the checkout line, Fixin’ Franks appears exactly when I need sustenance to soothe my weary soul.
But it’s more than the locale. The sausages at Fixin’ Franks taste great, and it’s because they are excellent sausages. Instead of the discount hot dogs one might expect from a hardware store stand, Shirley sources the meat from one of Chicago’s oldest and best sausage makers: Makowski’s Real Sausage.
Located in Bridgeport, Makowski’s has been operating for 101 years. You may know of the company for (comparatively) recent collaborations with some of Chicago’s trendiest chefs and restaurants: producing chef Kevin Hickey’s line of Duck Inn Dogs, making the sausages for Kaiser Tiger in the West Loop, and grinding the incredible Italian sausage used at Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream.
According to fourth-generation owner Nicole Makowski, Shirley just walked into the factory one day. “He wasn’t happy with the old manufacturer, so we gave him a bunch of samples, and he ended up liking our products the best,” Makowski said.
The sausages taste great, she said, because the company refuses to cut corners.
“Our hot dog formula is the same one we’ve used for decades,” Makowski said. “Plus, we pride ourselves on customer service.”
The regular hot dog ($3.20) at Fixin’ Franks is deeply beefy and impressively juicy, even if it’s missing the profound snap of a natural casing. It tastes best dragged through the garden with mustard, relish, diced onions, tomatoes, sport peppers, celery salt and a dill pickle spear.
For a meal under $4 in Chicago, this is hard to beat. The toppings feature an array of shockingly bright colors that offer a wealth of cooling crunch, which plays off the warm, tender sausage. I know I should be over this by now, but a properly made Chicago dog is a small wonder.
But I’ve recently become a convert to the two kinds of Polish sausage on the menu. One is made with only beef, and the other with a blend of pork and beef, which is called the Maxwell Street version.
The garlic-forward profile of both seems to prefer something a bit more aggressive than just mustard. It craves the most Chicago of all condiments: giardiniera. As I chronicled a few years ago, this pickled mix of chiles and vegetables originated in Italy, but once here evolved from a politely preserved collection of vegetables, into a punchy, spicy condiment perfect for topping iconic local dishes like Italian beefs.
Fixin’ Franks doesn’t serve just any giardiniera. It uses giardiniera from J.P. Graziano, an Italian deli in the West Loop that’s been open since 1937. Not only does the deli serve some of the best sandwiches in town, but it also produces my favorite giardiniera.
Once again, the partnership came about purely by chance. Jordan Shirley, Conley Shirley’s son, was shopping for supplies at the Jetro/Restaurant Depot on Division Street when he saw Jim Graziano, the fourth-generation owner of J.P. Graziano.
“This guy says, ‘Hey, I love your shop,’” Graziano said. “I thank him and ask him where his restaurant is. Very ho hum, he tells me, ‘My dad started the hot dog stands in Home Depot.’”
Graziano said he was so surprised to meet someone behind the hot dog stands, he froze and the conversation almost ended there. “We are about to walk away from each other after chatting a bit, but I turned around and said, ‘Know what would be really cool?’” Graziano said. That’s when he pitched a collaboration featuring Graziano’s excellent house giardiniera.
Now available at 10 Fixin’ Franks locations, the JPG Maxwell Street Polish ($5.18) is now the best thing on the menu. The juicy pork-and-beef Polish sausage from Makowski’s Real Sausage is topped with a healthy layer of bright yellow mustard, a tangle of crunchy and slightly sweet sauteed onions, and a hearty spoonful of salty, spicy giardiniera.
While it’ll obviously taste great if you’re stressed and starving because of some house project, it’s worth navigating the Home Depot parking lot even if all you need is a good lunch.
Because of the lack of atmosphere and the limited menu, including a complete absence of fresh-cut fries, I wouldn’t put Fixin’ Franks up against iconic Chicago hot dog stands like Red Hot Ranch, Superdawg or Jim’s Original.
But it’s also not trying to compete in that game. Instead, Fixin’ Franks is just an unreasonably good and convenient spot to grab a Polish sausage, and Chicago is beyond lucky to have it.
You can find the JPG Maxwell Street Polish at 10 locations of Fixin’ Franks inside these Home Depot locations:
6211 N. Lincoln Ave. (West Rogers Park)
3500 N. Kimball Ave. (Avondale)
2570 N. Elston Ave. (Bucktown)
1300 S. Clinton St. (South Loop)
200-232 W. 87th St. (Chatham)
2201 Oakton St., Evanston
350 E. Kensington Road, Mount Prospect
8650 W. Dempster St., Niles
901 Civic Center Drive, Niles
4060 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn