Bangor company’s ‘red snapper’ hot dogs are a beloved taste of Maine

By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 17, 2012, at 5:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — New York has its Coney Island dogs. Chicago has its brats. Hawaii has its puka dogs. And Michigan has its red hots.

But here in the Pine Tree State, few things say summer like Maine red snappers — those bright red hot dogs known for that “snap” you get when you bite into one.

Big sellers during the summertime barbecue season, Maine reds also are a hot commodity at baked bean suppers, gas stations and hot dog stands, to name a few.

“To me, they’re also synonymous with high school basketball tournaments,” says Sean Smith, director of marketing and sales development at W.A. Bean & Sons, which has been making the natural-casing treats since 1918.

The stepson of company President David Bean, Smith represents the fifth generation to work for the family business, which was founded in 1860.

“We are the only makers of the red hot dogs left in the state of Maine,” Smith said during a recent interview at W.A. Bean’s plant and retail butcher shop, which has been located in a cavernous warehouse in Bomarc Industrial Park off Burleigh Road in Bangor since 1968.

There, W.A. Bean produces an estimated 400,000 pounds of snappers each year, both under its own name and the Rice’s label that the family began producing nearly a decade ago, after negotiating a deal with its former owner and former competitor.

Available in red, pink and natural-color versions — for those sensitive to dyes — snappers are one of W.A. Bean’s biggest sellers and are featured prominently at the top of the company’s website, along with its renowned spiral-sliced, honey-glazed hams.

Whether grilled, steamed, fried, roasted over a campfire, boiled or broiled, Maine red hot dogs traditionally are served in New England split-top hot dog buns, usually buttered and lightly toasted, Smith said.

But Maine snappers aren’t only consumed here in Maine. Smith said they are shipped out to Maine expatriates throughout the United States who are yearning for a taste of home.

A cursory Internet search turns up dozens of Facebook pages, discussion boards and blog postings devoted to Maine reds.

“We ship them all over the country, to all 50 states,” Smith said.

Smith said the company used to have a large U.S. map on display, with push pins marking everywhere their snappers were shipped, sometimes in orders as large as 10 pounds at a time. Over time, the map became so crowded that maintaining it was no longer feasible.

Maine exiles also snatch them up while visiting “home” to bring back to share with their families and friends, Smith said, noting that one W.A. Bean fan from North Carolina drives north every three or four weeks to get a fix of his favorite dog.

Gary Babin, current owner of Babins Grocery Outlet in the northern Maine town of St. Agatha, said that the store, founded by his father, Clint Babin, has been selling red hot dogs for decades — often to former St. John Valley natives who’ve moved south, he said.

“I sold a couple boxes this week to some [Maine natives] who were bringing them back to Connecticut,” he said. He said he also is asked on occasion to ship them, packed with soda bottles that he fills with water and freezes so the hot dogs stay cold during their two- to three-day trip to points south.

“For me, we were brought up with those,” he said, adding that he and some family members sampled hot dogs that were not Maine snappers during a 1997 visit to Fenway Park.

“They were all right, but they weren’t red,” he said this week.

And while not a Mainer, Hawk Krall of Philadelphia knows his hot dogs, including reds. He’s been writing and illustrating his “ Hot Dog of the Week” blog for the Serious Eats website for three years.

Krall said this week he encountered his first Maine red snapper a few years ago, while on a camping trip to Acadia National Park. On his way north, he stopped at the famed Flo’s Hot Dogs in Cape Neddick, where he had a hot dog, “which was great,” though not a red one. He then noticed “big bags of neon red and pink natural casing dogs in [a local] supermarket. “Bean’s brand, I think.” He grabbed two bags for the campsite.

“They were great and unlike anything we have in Philly,” he said. “Snappier casing than most natural-casing dogs I’ve had. Since then, I’ve had red-dyed dogs in other parts of the country,” including natural-casing Glazier brand red dogs in the Adirondack region, Nu-Way dogs in Georgia, even Filipino brands from Asian markets. “Maine’s are still the best!”

So what sets Maine red snappers apart from the rest of the pack?

Other brands of red hot dogs available locally are not made in Maine.

“They’re more of a mass-produced product. Ours are handmade, crafted right here,” Smith said. “We take a lot of pride in that.”

Smith said the biggest difference, frankly, lies in quality ingredients — “fresh, fresh, fresh.”

And the “snap,” which comes from the natural lamb casings, added Robert “Vinnie” Valente, who has been supervising the hot dog making process and W.A. Bean for 11 years. As foreman, Valente oversees a workforce of 15 full-timers, a number that rises to about 25 or more during the busy summer season.

Both W.A. Bean and Rice snappers begin with a mix of lean pork and beef to which secret spice blends passed down through generations of the Bean and Rice families are added, Smith said. No fillers are used.

The difference between the two Maine-made brands “is a slightly different spice note,” Smith said.

The mixture, called “batter,” then is stuffed into natural lamb casings, twisted into links, tied off and hung in strings from a series of large racks. After being dry-cooked to firm them up, they are given a hot water bath, during which the bright red and pink versions receive their respective dyes.

“We make the red-red ones and we’re the only one that uses red-red,” Valente said during a recent visit to the plant.

It isn’t entirely clear why the red coloring was introduced. One legend has it that the coloring historically was added by the original European makers of frankfurters to mask less-than-premium ingredients.

Smith, however, speculated that W.A. Bean added its signature coloring as a way of making its frankfurters stand out amid a sea of competitors. “And it took off.”

Asked which are more popular — the reds or the pinks — Valente said “it’s really right down the middle.”

Then they’re off to the packing and shipping room, where they are cooled to a temperature of 40 degrees and then packaged for retail and wholesale customers.

While Smith noted that the company takes a great deal of pride in its past, it also is keeping its eyes on the future as it begins to position itself to expand its market into New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and beyond.

W.A. Bean also is looking to introduce its products to a younger generation “that maybe doesn’t know us as well” through its website, Facebook page and other social media, Smith said.

Fans of red snappers are invited to drop by the retail shop on Free Hot Dog Fridays, where they can sample them while browsing the beef, pork and chicken products that just earned W.A. Bean Best Butcher Shop/Meat Market in the Greater Bangor area honors from Market Surveys of America.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/08/17/business/bangor-companys-red-snapper-hot-dogs-are-a-beloved-taste-of-maine/ printed on April 23, 2014