Doggone Good Pronto Pups!
Necessity invents the “Banquet on a Stick”
STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS
IMAGES COURTESY OF PRONTO PUP
The corndog — or, as originally known, the Pronto Pup — originated in Oregon.
The story begins on a rainy Labor Day weekend in 1939, when weather turned the hot dog buns into sop at George and Versa Boyington’s Rockaway Beach hot dog stand. They’d counted on Labor Day weekend crowds to replenish their till. Now they had wieners, but no buns. This was a problem that rose time and again on the coast.
George carried the ruined hot dog buns to the beach to feed the seagulls. He stared at the ocean. How could he get past the need for a bun, but still serve a good hot dog? According to his son Baxter, George was a showman and entrepreneur (prior vocations included used car salesman and bootlegger). He would not be defeated. Back at the stand, George thrust a stick into a hot dog, dipped it in batter, and deep-fried it. Now he had a portable product — a “banquet on a stick,” as he liked to say — that customers could carry with one hand, no bun necessary.
The Pronto Pup was born.
The Wiener Dun in a Bun
George and Versa opened a snack concession in Portland and refined their new product. The Boyingtons’ first big outing with Pronto Pups was the 1941 Pacific International Livestock Exposition. They sold more than 15,000 Pronto Pups — about one for every five attendees. So many people lined up at their stand that they stopped selling soft drinks and focused solely on getting the pups from the fryer to the consumers’ hands. Pronto Pups were officially a sensation.
The next year, building on their success, the Boyingtons trademarked “Pronto Pups” and launched a franchising campaign that included the slogan “the wiener dun in a bun.” Their logo featured a hot dog wearing a sombrero and sporting tiny legs, whirling around, as if trying to elude the fry cook’s tongs. Portland’s waterfront Centennial Mills factory, recently demolished, milled and bagged the mix. With marketing materials and a solid product in hand, George and Versa sold franchises for storefront concessions called “Pronto Inns” and distributed Pronto Pup mix to fairs and amusement parks.
Compared to most corndogs today, Pronto Pups are less sweet, and their bready coating has a finer texture. The Boyingtons insisted on using the “best oil” and the “best hot dog,” even going so far as to insist that Pronto Pups be served only with mustard, not ketchup. They required franchisee fry cooks to wear white jackets and toques. The Boyingtons’ plan was to have the mix milled in a handful of locations throughout the country so it would be quickly available for the tight web of Pronto Inns they foresaw blanketing the nation, even stretching to Cuba and Puerto Rico.
While Pronto Inns never became as ubiquitous as the Boyingtons had dreamed, they did take hold in Memphis, Chicago, Florida, Texas, and Minnesota. Portland was also home to a handful of Pronto Inns, including one at 30th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard and at 82nd Avenue and Foster Road. Pronto Pups are still popular in Oregon’s beach towns. State fairs and amusement parks adopted Pronto Pups early on, to the point that many people falsely believe the Pronto Pup originated at the Minnesota State Fair, which launched five Pronto Pup stands in 1946.
Other savvy businesspeople leapt on the corndog concept, some even claiming to hold the real title to the corndog’s origin. One such business was Corny Dogs in Texas, established in 1942. David Sulmonetti, Pronto Pup’s current president, hints that the Corny Dogs brothers might have worked briefly for George and Versa and absconded with their moneymaking idea. The Cozy Dog Drive-In in Springfield, Illinois, also lays claim to introducing corndogs, but at their boasted introduction date of 1948, they were late to the game. Also in 1948, the Boyingtons asked for a restraining order against Raymond and Mildred Wanish of Salem for selling Pluto Pups — “a spurious imitation” of the original’s “tasty and delectable tidbit,” the complaint reads.
Focus Shifts to Supply and Distribution
By the 1950s, the Boyingtons had decided to get out of the Pronto Pup business. They sold a controlling interest to their attorney and his brother, Alfred and Alex Sulmonetti. Al and Alex took a different approach from the Boyingtons. They dropped efforts to franchise Pronto Inns, focusing on supplying existing franchisees, fairs, and amusement parks.
Today, Alex Sulmonetti’s 94-year-old widow, Carley, owns Pronto Pups, and her son, David, runs the business out of a storefront on Terwilliger Boulevard. Pronto Inns are now few and far between, and Pronto Pup mix is no longer sold in grocery stores. In Portland, the only year-round Pronto Pup vendor is Original Joe’s at Gateway.
But business at state fairs is booming. In 2016, the Minnesota State Fair sold its 25 millionth Pronto Pup. Last year alone, David estimates that attendees at the Oregon State Fair consumed about 40,000 Pronto Pups. Business is also big in Memphis and Boise, and at the Cedar Point, Kennywood, and Valleyfair amusement parks. David hauls his vintage Pronto Pup food truck to fairs throughout the state and does a brisk business that way, too.
Besides selling Pronto Pup mix — now milled at the Archer Daniels Midland factory in Spokane, but with the “same recipe as forever,” according to David — he sells Gold Medal concessions, including gallon jars of liquid cheese, cotton candy machines, and a private-label funnel-cake mix. Now, ketchup is welcomed on a Pronto Pup, and vendors can choose the size, hot dog, and cooking oil they favor without restriction. No white coats are required of Pronto Pup cooks, either.
For people yearning to make their own Pronto Pups, the company sells Pronto Pup mix online and at its office in 5-pound bags. David also sells the birch sticks to spear the wieners. He recommends choosing a hot dog with a pork and beef blend for the best flavor. For oil, he says a plain vegetable oil is best.
Pronto Pup Finds New Life
Echoing George and Versa Boyington, David has sold Pronto Pups at Rockaway Beach over Labor Day weekend for the past 5 years. He includes an hourly chat at the courthouse about the corndog’s origins. And that’s where the Pronto Pup’s history takes another twist.
Anthony McNamer, an attorney and stand-up comedian, learned that the corndog originated in Rockaway Beach and was enraptured. “When I found out that the corn dog was invented in Rockaway, I thought, ‘They should make a bigger deal out of that. They should at least have a big corndog statue or something.’”
Without having sampled a single Pronto Pup, McNamer built a Pronto Pup restaurant — adding vegetarian options, including zucchini on a stick — that opened in Rockaway Beach last April. Fittingly, in building his Pronto Pup stand, he added two new “firsts” to the world’s first corndog: the world’s largest corndog, mounted on the Pronto Pup stand’s roof; and the world’s first riding mechanical corndog.
Angela Sanders writes about food, people, and history from Portland, Oregon, and is also the author of mystery novels under her name and the pen name Clover Tate. www.angelamsanders.com