Last summer, three weeks before Bobby Morelli was supposed to open an ice cream and cookie spot, his business partner bailed. Before that, the pandemic forced his web design clients to scale back and put his fledgling R&B career on hold due to canceled tour dates. So Morelli, an avid home cook, brainstormed concepts for a restaurant to fit the times, one that made sense for takeout, worked year-round, and could be pulled off without professional culinary experience. His answer: hot dogs.
Morelli opened the Hot Dog Box last August inside a 400-square-foot cherry-red steel shipping container at Boxville, a marketplace across from the 51st Street CTA station. There, he and his 9-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, serve what they call “gourmet glizzies,” a.k.a. hot dogs loaded with wild toppings. Now that it’s their first full summer in business, diners have been lining up for the creative dogs, which are helping fill the void that Hot Doug’s left when it closed in 2014. Morelli is offering attention getters like the Bronzeville Bourbon Steak Dog ($12.75), which packs on bacon, carrot-cabbage slaw, sport peppers, and bourbon barbecue sauce, and the salty-sweet Pickle and Peanut Butter Mignon Steak Dog ($12.75), topped with the improbable combo of sweet pickles, a spicy truffle and peanut butter sauce, and crispy onions seasoned with garlic and pepper. Besides his steak dogs — natural-casing franks actually made with filet mignon — Morelli has turkey, chicken, and vegan wieners, and for purists, there’s always a Chicago-style dog ($5.75).
Morelli dreams up limited-run offerings like the Compass, a steak dog with shrimp, arugula, and creamy chipotle sauce, and the Smoked Teriyaki, a wild Alaskan salmon dog with spinach, green onions, teriyaki sauce, and toasted sesame seeds. “The grocery store is now my favorite place to be,” he says, describing how he roams the aisles to find ideas for new menu items.
When school and homework are finished, Brooklyn heads over to the shop, where she takes orders, washes dishes, and restocks ingredients. “I’m proud to share this journey with her,” Morelli says. “I didn’t have my father growing up, and I often longed for one to help show me the ropes.”
Sales have been strong enough that Morelli is ready to expand beyond the shipping container. A round of crowdfunding helped him raise enough to convert a former Portage Park bridal shop into a restaurant (4020 N. Milwaukee Ave.) he hopes to open August 1, in time to celebrate the Hot Dog Box’s first anniversary. “I always knew I would be a man of success,” says Morelli. “I just didn’t know that hot dogs would get me there.” 330 E. 51st St., Bronzeville