It’s a beautiful warm Sunday, and the first annual Saugy hot dog-eating contest is about to start as the highlight of the Cranston Spring Festival. Ten-year-old Elijah from Providence is the youngest and smallest of a dozen built-and-burly male competitors lined up at a table in Rolfe Square. So far Elijah has had three false starts, lunging at his basket of a half-dozen Saugys before the official start bell. “No, no, no, no, no, not yet!” the event emcee would shout with a laugh. “Aargh!” he complains with a dramatic eye roll and head flip. “I want my Saugys!”
We all do, Elijah – and it’s been that way in Rhode Island since 1869. The local German-style hot dog known for the distinctive snap of its natural casing came to Rhode Island as the brainchild of German immigrants Augustus and Alphonse Saugy, who successfully operated the company for decades, with a brief hiatus during World War II, when food rations prevented the couple from sourcing the high-quality meats and spices that makes the dogs so distinctly flavorful.
Saugy’s current owner, Mary O’Brien, is the granddaughter of Leo McCaughy, who started working at the company in 1912 at the age of 14 and eventually became its CEO and president. As a teenager, O’Brien knew that her family’s franks deserved universal attention. She took over in 2001, bringing with her updated manufacturing technology and thoughts about growing the brand with new recipes (bratwurst and a “skinless” ballpark-style dog), products such as relish and mustard, and fun marketing initiatives including the hot dog eating contest. Not that Rhode Islanders need reminding that Saugys are great – “They are very loyal customers,” O’Brien says, and she’s got a faithful cadre of out-of-staters to whom she ships as evidence.
Rhode Islanders can find Saugys in just about every local supermarket, and increasingly on the menu at places such as Potowomut Golf Club in East Greenwich, Valley Country Club in Warwick, Tomaselli’s at Rosario in Providence, and Tavern on the Hill in West Greenwich. You’ll find Haley Meiklejohn and her dad, Scott, enjoying the dogs at Proclamation Ale in Warwick. “He used to get them all the time when I was little and cook them on the grill,” Hailey says. “I didn’t love the snap back then, but now I absolutely love them! When he wants to cheat on his diet, we head straight here!” Even late-night talk show veteran and part-time Rhode Islander Jay Leno was known to regularly enjoy Saugys at Wally’s Wieners in Newport.
Today, despite his best efforts, Elijah doesn’t lead the pack when it comes to eating Saugys. No, today the biggest Saugy fan on the planet is Jonathan Gonzalez of Cranston, who wolfed down 10 Saugys – ketchup on the side – in 10 minutes to claim his crown at the first annual Saugy contest. How was the experience for him? “Piece of cake!” he says with a laugh and two thumbs up.
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