Why becoming a Wienermobile driver is harder than getting into Harvard
Kyle Edwards and Hayley Rozman, two recent college grads in their early 20s, are at a grocery store on the south side of Chicago, giving a tour of their temporary home away from home, a Wienermobile they’ve lived in since last summer.
Like all hotdoggers, they speak almost entirely in hot-dog puns. They’ve “relished” the experience of their temporary post and insist that anyone riding “shot bun” must wear a “meat belt” and enjoy the view from the “bunroof.”
“To keep this job, you really have to show that you can cut the mustard,” says Edwards, straight-faced.
“Hotdogger” is an official title for the young men and women who travel the country in giant mobile wieners, spreading the gospel of processed meats (and their employer, Oscar Mayer Foods Corp.). Since 1988, there have been six Wienermobiles consistently on tour, visiting every US state and Canada 12 months a year.
And two hotdoggers — typically one male and one female — are always at the helm.
“It can be easier to get into an Ivy League university than become a hotdogger,” Ed Roland, a senior manager of experiential marketing at Oscar Mayer, told The Post.
He’s not kidding. Applications from soon-to-be-college grads have jumped from 6,000 in 2018 to 7,000 this year — thanks in part, Oscar Mayer reps speculate, to an increase in the Wienermobile’s social-media presence. (YouTube videos of the Wienermobile fleet, posted last summer by Oscar Mayer, have garnered almost 2 million views.)
With just 12 picked each year, that puts the Wienermobile acceptance rate at around 0.17 percent. The acceptance rate for Harvard is 4.6 percent. Edwards and Rozman will end their yearlong journey in June, when the next crew of hotdoggers takes over. Though applicants come from across the country — the incoming class includes graduates from Texas to Connecticut — the company actively recruits at four colleges: the University of Missouri, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Texas at Austin and Pennsylvania State University.
Roland says they look for candidates with degrees in marketing, public relations, business or other related fields and anyone with “strong interpersonal skills with people of all ages.” There are numerous interviews and callbacks, and applicants go above and beyond to try to get noticed.
Robin Gelfenbien, a Connecticut native and former hotdogger now in her 40s who calls New York home, remembers a grueling process of trying to stand apart from hundreds of high-energy students. “I wanted the job so bad, I made a demo cassette of original songs about wieners,” she tells The Post. “It had lyrics like, ‘Oscar Mayer do you hear me, I want to be in the weenie.’ ”
It isn’t exactly a plum gig. The yearlong commitment includes an entry-level salary and a weekly per diem for hotels and meals. (Both the hotdoggers and Oscar Mayer spokespeople declined to share the exact amount.) The schedule demands travel across dozens of states, making around 1,200 stops every year. They get two days off a week and a handful of vacation days for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But the allure of the job is clear.
“I loved that everywhere we went, people would point and stare,” says Gelfenbien. “Everyone is happy to see you. You become a celebrity by proxy. That’s a very powerful drug.”
The original Wienermobile drivers weren’t eager college students looking for an unconventional way to spend their postgrad year. They were little people. Or, as they were called in the 1930s and ’40s, midgets.
The brainchild of the company’s advertising manager (and the founder’s nephew) Carl G. Mayer, the first Wienermobile in 1936 was a 13-foot, cylindrical-shaped metal sausage (sans bun) that wasn’t exactly roomy inside.
So they drafted one of their employees, a 3-foot-6″ salesman named Meinhardt Raabe, to play Little Oscar, “the World’s Smallest Chef,” who would pop out of a trap door at the tail end of the wiener.
The Wienermobile toured Madison, Wis., the company’s home base, and a few major cities in the East and Midwest, taking a brief hiatus so that Raabe could appear as a Munchkin in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
Gas rationing kept the Wienermobile off the road during World War II, but it soon returned and five more Wienermobiles were built to meet demand. The 1952 models, built by the Gerstenslager Company, were 22 feet long and built on a Dodge truck chassis. A 1958 redesign included a bubble cockpit for the driver and was the first, according to designer Brooks Stevens, “to put the wiener in the bun.”
Nine Little Oscars were hired by the company over the next 30 years, paid $80 a week to travel the country visiting stores, schools and children’s hospitals and raise awareness of the brand, mostly by handing out hot-dog samples and wiener-shaped whistles. The diminutive actors included Joe White, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performer, and Jerry Maren, another “Wizard of Oz” actor.
George Molchan, who traveled with the Wienermobile for three decades and had the longest tenure as Little Oscar, was visited by a Wienermobile at his 2005 funeral in Merrillville, Ind.
As priests said the final prayers over his coffin, the 50 or so mourners sang the Oscar Mayer jingle (“Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener/ That is what I’d truly like to be”) and then blew on wiener whistles as he was lowered into his grave.
The Wienermobile was put into “semi-retirement” in 1976, when the company decided to focus on TV advertising. Commercials like the one featuring an adorable curly haired kid singing “My bologna has a first name” were doing more for brand recognition than a roving sausage manned by a tiny chef visiting grocery stores.
But for the Wienermobile’s 50th anniversary in 1986, it was rolled out of storage for a special tour of a dozen cities (without Little Oscar). After almost a decade out of the limelight, the vehicles were so rusty they had to be hauled by a flatbed truck to each destination.
Still, the reaction was overwhelming. Oscar Mayer was flooded with letters from customers, either complaining that the Wienermobile had skipped their city or wanting a return visit.
In 1988, the Wienermobile was officially relaunched. A new and improved fleet of wieners, each sporting a 23-foot fiberglass body mounted on a Chevrolet van with a V-6 engine, were deployed on never-ending tours. And instead of little people dressed as chefs, they introduced the “hotdogger” program, a nationwide search to find college students willing to live full-time in a mobile wiener.
There have been just over 400 hotdoggers over the past 31 years — including former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who called his Oscar Mayer tenure in the early ’90s “an easier job” than politics. “You’re more popular driving the Wienermobile than being speaker of the House,” he claimed in a 2018 podcast interview.
By the numbers alone, more people have gone to space (currently 561 astronauts) than have learned how to parallel park a Wienermobile.
Parallel parking a 27-foot hot dog — new models grew by four feet in the mid-’90s — is exactly as challenging as it sounds. So much that hotdoggers must take a two-week driving course, called “Hot Dog High,” before they’re allowed to take a Wienermobile off the lot in Madison.
Wienermobiles have been involved in very few accidents. A bigger risk is avoiding sexual innuendo. It is, after all, a huge wiener, and the jokes practically write themselves.
Daniel Duff, a Syracuse grad, was a hotdogger between 1994 and ’95, and once gave Jon Stewart a ride around New York for his MTV show at the time. Stewart asked to take the Wienermobile to the Lincoln Tunnel, with his producers insisting it was “just part of New York culture.”
But when Duff watched the final broadcast, particularly the part where the wiener enters the tunnel, he saw his Wienermobile being used in a not-especially-subtle sexual context.
The publicity “wasn’t at all what corporate wanted,” Duff told The Post. “But I see the humor in it. Back then I didn’t. I thought I was going to be fired for sure.” He wasn’t, and he finished his Wienermobile tour of duty without incident.
Inside the Wienermobile, there’s seating for six, and some of the chairs pull out to become daybeds. The ceiling is painted sky blue and the plush carpeting has decorative mustard and ketchup splashes. There’s a hot-dog-shaped dashboard, gull-wing door with retractable steps, voice-activated GPS and a widescreen TV.
One thing the Wienermobile doesn’t have is a grill or a fridge for storing hot dogs, much to the chagrin of some visitors.
‘Everyone is happy to see you. You become a celebrity by proxy. That’s a very powerful drug.’
“That’s our No. 1 question, ‘Where are the hot dogs?’ ” says Edwards, a 23-year-old St. Louis native who graduated last year from the University of Missouri. “We don’t. But we have about 11,000 wiener whistles in the back.”
The real upside of being a Wienermobile driver isn’t just how much of the country they’ll see — they’ll hit 30 states by the time their run is over — it’s the little perks that come with the job, like being able to use the Wienermobile for personal trips.
One of Edwards’ favorite memories happened in North Dakota last October, when a 90-year-old man asked to ride shot bun in the Wienermobile . . . while listening to Pink Floyd.
“He said it was the one thing he wanted to do before he died,” Edwards remembers. “How do you say no to that?”
Even though Edwards and Rozman have been on the road just a few weeks shy of a year, they still seem happy to be here. “I thought I was going to teach fifth grade this year,” Edwards says. “But then I discovered the Wienermobile and I thought: Fifth grade will always be there.”
He’s not especially eager to go back. He’s decided instead to move to LA and take a shot at acting. He and Rozman, a University of Wisconsin grad from suburban Milwaukee, have even applied to be on the reality show “The Amazing Race.”
“It’s a long shot,” he admits. “But the Wienermobile has given me hope that crazy things do happen.”
A year driving a Wienermobile may not sound like the best résumé fodder, but Gelfenbien says it’s only helped her. “There was one job interview I did, for a sports marketing firm, where I felt like they brought me in purely to hear about the Wienermobile,” she says, adding that she got the job.
Though Gelfenbien’s Wienermobile days are long behind her, she still thinks about it often. She wrote and starred in a one-woman show called “My Salvation Has a First Name: A Wienermobile Journey,” which premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival 10 years ago, and she’s currently working on a memoir of the same name.
Gelfenbien says the Wienermobile saved her life, or at least her self-esteem, after a college experience that left her feeling bullied and directionless.
“When your whole job is just about putting a smile on people’s faces, it changes your worldview,” she says. “Despite my parents’ best efforts to make me do something else, anything else, I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The last time she was inside a Wienermobile was a year ago, and she still gets goose bumps when she sees it. “Remember that ‘Seinfeld’ episode where George pushes old people and kids out of the way to escape what he thinks is a burning house?” she asks.
“That’s what I’m like whenever I see a Wienermobile. I will push a kid to the ground to get to it.”
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