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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.

Relishing life on the road in the Wienermobile

We dare you to not feel joy at the sight of Oscar Mayer’s iconic 27-foot sausage on wheels and its Hotdoggers

Keila Garza closes the door of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile at a Schnucks grocery store in Florissant, Mo., on Feb. 5. Garza and Shelby Lewis are spending one year as hotdoggers, the drivers of one of six Oscar Mayer Wienermobiles. (Whitney Curtis)
9 min

FLORISSANT, Mo. — On a sunny Sunday morning in a suburb of St. Louis, a 27-foot-long hot dog car rolled into the Schnucks supermarket parking lot. After decades of TV commercials and promotional stunts, most Americans don’t need to read its logo to know it’s the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

Well, one of them. There are six Wienermobiles on the road at any given time. You can tell the cars apart by their license plates: YUMMY; OURDOG; WNRMBLE; RELSHME; OCRMYR; and WEENR.

With the same flair as a DMC DeLorean, WEENR’s gull-wing door opened like the hood of a grill. Out popped “Queso Dog” Keila Garza, 23, her bouncy black curls draped over a ketchup-colored bomber jacket with “HOTDOGGER,” her profession, embroidered in mustard yellow. She beelined for the Schnucks.

Since 1988, Oscar Mayer has dispatched teams of traveling spokespeople, or “Hotdoggers,” across America (and once, Europe) in Wienermobiles to get the public excited about the brand. Thousands of people apply, but only 12 are chosen for the year-long salaried gig. Working in pairs, they truck six Wienermobiles through their assigned territories, passing out $1.50 off coupons and collectibles (not hot dogs anymore) while living out of hotels, cabins, campsites and Airbnbs.

Oscar Mayer covers accommodation costs, and it provides a $150-a-week stipend and full health benefits.

There’s technically no age requirement for the position, but most Hotdoggers are just out of college, equipped with the youthful vigor needed for the demanding hot dog schedule.

Mondays are for road trips, which can be “anywhere from three to eight hours, depending upon what city they’re needed in next,” said Ed Roland, Oscar Mayer’s senior manager of brand communications, who has run the program for eight years. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the Hotdoggers’ days off. (They also get 18 paid days off.) Thursday through Sunday, they host and attend an onslaught of events — 1,200 to 1,400 events per year between the whole fleet.

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The most important criteria: “You need to be a people person,” Roland said. “If you don’t enjoy people, this would be a tough job, because everybody wants to talk to you.”

From June to the following June, Hotdoggers must remain sitcom-level friendly in the name of Oscar Mayer, whether they’re driving the Wienermobile in a Mardi Gras parade or pumping gas between destinations.

They coordinate their stops with businesses, special events, charitable organizations, sports venues and occasionally regular civilians, such as Cameron Von Thron, 34, who reached out to Oscar Mayer in 2021 to surprise his wife-to-be at their Tampa wedding. It was his betrothed’s dream to become a Hotdogger, but the timing was never right. The sight of the Wienermobile at the reception brought the bride to tears. “It was the best part of my wedding,” said Aubrey Von Thron, 32, who ended up becoming a lawyer instead.

But if you take a look at the WhereMyDogs@ website, it’s fewer weddings and more grocery stores that make up the Wienermobile schedule.

So it was a pretty typical morning for Garza at the Missouri Schnucks, where they had arranged a “meat and greet.” Inside the store, she approached the nearest employee, explained who she was and asked where they could park for the event. The employee grabbed a manager, no questions asked — as though a visit from a hot dog nearly four Shaquille O’Neals-long was normal. The manager told Garza to set up near the store’s exit, and it was back to the Wienermobile to tell “Sizzlin’” Shelby Lewis, 23, their next move.

“If you don’t enjoy people, this would be a tough job, because everybody wants to talk to you.”

With WEENR parked, they unloaded a card table, branded yellow tablecloth and some marketing materials, including a sandwich board with Wienermobile facts. Schnucks customers approached the car — some sheepish, some unabashed — to take photos, ask questions or grab a Wiener Whistle, a Wienermobile-shaped collectible you can only get in person. Grown-ups were most excited, by far. Some were so overwhelmed they abandoned their shopping carts and nearly forgot them later.

“Hop up on that silver step and take a peek in — you can see we have six ketchup-and-mustard seats, complete with ‘meat belts,’” Lewis told a husband and wife. “Make sure to look up: The skies are always blue in the Wienermobile.”

Like the Sistine Chapel and the Venetian Las Vegas, the Wienermobile has a puffy cloud sky motif on its ceiling. It adds to the whimsy of the interior, along with a streak of mustard decorating the carpet. A retractable red strap can latch across the entrance to keep curious visitors from climbing inside. For those who didn’t get the hint, Lewis gently explained it was for their safety to stay outside. “You’ll slip on the mustard,” she quipped.

If there was a competition for the most consistent use of hot dog puns, Lewis would win first place by a landslide.

“Have a ‘bunderful’ day!” she told visitors, after “franking” them for stopping by.

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The two Hotdoggers orbited WEENR in sync like two seasoned professionals, even though it was only their first month Hotdogging together. To keep things fresh, Hotdoggers switch partners and regions halfway through their stint.

Before they were paired to trawl the “Central region,” Garza covered the West Coast, plus a month in Puerto Rico, with Abbey “Frankfurter” Rank, 23, while Lewis and “Corn Dog” Clara Adams explored the Southeast, from North Carolina to Florida.

Being from Oregon and Arizona, respectively, the Atlantic Ocean was new territory to Adams and Lewis, so they went to the beach as often as they could. In the Florida Keys, “you could just see the double takes from people on the road,” Lewis said. “What is the Wienermobile doing down here?”

That’s a typical response. “It’s always like a parade wherever you go,” Garza said. “People are honking, waving, laughing. ... It’s just so happy wherever you go.”

The company has been jockeying for attention since Oscar Ferdinand Mayer founded it in Chicago in 1883. By 1929, the company found a way to help customers distinguish its German wieners from the competition by wrapping its meats with a yellow band, which today’s Wienermobiles still feature. “We call it sort of our yellow band of optimism,” Roland said.

The campy witticisms — plus the “buns and buns” of puns deployed by Hotdoggers and headquarters alike — give the entire Wienermobile operation strong theater-kid energy. Its Disney-level wholesomeness offends few but PETA, which matches the earnest vibe people have interacting with the Wienermobile.

“I just love this. That is gorgeous,” said Schnucks customer Janice Tibbs, 73. When she worked at a college, the Wienermobile came to campus, and Tibbs still has a vivid memory of students sprinting down a grassy knoll, their white lab coats flapping, to see it up close. It was an emotional experience for her to encounter the car again.

Another woman told the Hotdoggers, “I’m so blessed,” after taking a photo with the car. A man teared up mentioning he hadn’t seen the Wienermobile in 58 years.

“People are honking, waving, laughing. ... It’s just so happy wherever you go.”

Three hours later, it was time for the Hotdoggers to leave for their next event at a different Schnucks. Garza and Lewis loaded the Wienermobile and climbed up the retractable steps that unfurl with the car door. Lewis, in ketchup bottle socks, fired up the V8 Chevy Vortec engine and maneuvered the car into traffic the way she’d learned during her two weeks at Hot Dog High, their official training. This was nothing compared with some of the terrain they cover; Garza once took the Wienermobile on the winding Pacific Coast Highway.

On long drives, Hotdoggers pass the time listening to music and podcasts, singing karaoke, playing newlywed get-to-know-you games, eating snacks (Takis, BBQ chips and almonds are some favorites) and keeping up with loved ones on Snapchat. They take turns behind the wheel to stay alert and plot their next hotel reservation, which can be tricky.

“You’ve got to find something ahead of time that could also fit the Wienermobile in the parking lot,” Lewis said.

Many drivers didn’t notice WEENR, even when Lewis started the “jingle horn.” Those who did waved or whipped out phones to take photos. A group of young people on the side of the road clocked the moving dog and ran toward it, flailing their arms like fans trying to catch prizes from a T-shirt cannon at a basketball game.

The next Schnucks event was exponentially more crowded. Some businesses promote the Wienermobile’s arrival, which can bring in more visitors. One father and son in the crowd told Garza and Lewis that they got bad information on Facebook about the event and showed up at the wrong Schnucks at the wrong time, but, hey, they made it.

The Hotdoggers split up to divide and conquer. They passed out whistles, saving face with parents by telling kids a white lie that they “only work outside.” Lewis doled out Hotdogger nicknames on the spot; a boy named A.J. became “At the Grill A.J.”

The following day, they were in for a road trip to Texas, where a stop in Garza’s hometown was on their schedule. The weary travelers looked forward to home-cooked meals and a break from hotels.

“Until this point, driving the Wienermobile across the country has been this alternate reality. It’s been a dream almost,” Garza said. “But bringing it home will cement that it’s happening, that it’s happened. And I’ll never forget it.”