Torben keeps the Danish hotdog tradition alive, whilst his business is facing one of the most critical moments of its centennial history.
After some preparation in his garage, Torben pulls his wagon to Rådhuspladsen, right in front of Copenhagen’s City Hall, which has been his location for the past 3 years. At walking pace a line of cars patiently follow behind him, proving the normality of such a moment in the Copenhagen city life. Once at the square, it takes him 10 minutes to set up and have the cart up and running. Torben’s sausage wagon is one of approximately 100 left in Denmark. Helping him to run it is Alexander, a 23-year-old student of engineering. Together, they are two of only very few symbols, who help keep the Danish hotdog tradition alive.
Also called “Restaurant Cold Feet” (try them in winter to believe it), these mobile kitchens have become a fundamental part of the Danish cultural heritage throughout the past century. Hotdogs in Denmark are eaten on many occasions and it is common to rent out a sausage wagon for celebrations such as birthdays, family gatherings, festivals, and so on. It is so popular that an annual competition is held every year at the Aarhus Food Festival where the most ambitious sausage wagon owners, or so-called “Pølsemænd,” and some of the country’s top chefs participate in a tournament competing for the best traditional and gourmet edition of the Danish hotdog.
The experience of this traditional Danish street food is a set of sensations: the smell of grilled sausages is comforting, the biting cold of winter creates the atmosphere and the excuse for a load of calories, the pleasure of an easy conversation with Torben tops everything off making it a great meal at any time of the day. In fact, Torben’s customers are of all kinds: the busy Copenhagener looking for a fast bite before going back to the office, the elderly who takes his time for a short chat. A woman walks her dog past the wagon and, just like something that happens regularly, the dog stands on two legs waiting for the Pølsemand to throw a piece of sausage, and off they go.
How it all began
The idea of the sausage wagon came to Denmark from the neighbouring countries. Already existing in Germany before the First World War, this street food culture expanded to Kristiania (now Oslo) in Norway where the Danish Music Director Charles Svendsen Stevns had settled down and, beside his job, ran 7 sausage carts. He wanted to bring the business to his home country and in 1910, for the first time, he applied for permission to sell sausages in the streets of Copenhagen. His application was flatly rejected, but Svendsen did not give up, and in 1918, he applied again. Eventually approved, on the 17th of January 1921, the first 6 sausage wagons were presented to the press.
The old days
This business had its heyday between the 50’s and the 70’s, when there were about 700 sausage wagons in the country. The wagons did not only gain popularity by serving delicious Danish hotdogs, but they also created common ground between different social classes as well as opportunities for informal conversations. In these 20 years, the sausage wagons also became larger and more modern. However, in the beginning of the 70’s, the introduction of fast-food restaurants and food chains created an alternative to the Danish hotdog. This led to a protest of the sausage wagon owners of Aarhus in 1973, a protest that marked the beginning of the industry’s decline. Nowadays, traditional Danish sausage wagons, or so-called “pølsevogne,” are mostly found in the city centre of the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
The growing food industry and the new generation’s needs have forced Torben to update his business.
“There is much more street food now than there was before. In the old days there was nothing else to choose from,” says Torben from inside his cart. “Today there is a lot of competition and this is why we need to be a little more creative.”
In addition to the traditional sausages sold for many years, the sausage wagon owners have had to expand their menus in order to meet more people’s tastes. Torben, for example, did it by introducing a beef sandwich, a pulled pork hotdog, and a vegan alternative.
“Today there are also fewer people eating pork,” he continues, “There are more vegans, vegetarians, and a bigger Muslim community than before. Therefore, I decided to add a vegan hotdog to the menu.”
Sourcing better quality products and using homemade ingredients has also become an alternative way of fighting back the competition of various fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Raising the quality helps create a new layer to the market that many businesses can’t reach.
“I use a type of bread made of durum, different in taste from the traditional one. I also pickle cucumbers and make some of the sauces myself.”
“I have been working in sausage wagons for about 7 years before I got my own wagon 3 years ago and, in all this time, I’ve never experienced anything like what I have in 2020.”
The next big challenge
Torben explains, “More than half of my customers were tourists and, since the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, the business has dropped about 60%. I lost many hours of work and 2 of my employees. I think, in this condition, we can only last 6 more months.”
The busy streets of Copenhagen city centre and the tendency of seeing tourists trying the Danish national food are slowly becoming a rare sight. The iconic square, Rådhuspladsen,where Torben works and where a century ago one of the first 6 sausage wagons was located, is now mostly empty.
“I do not think traditional sausage wagons will disappear completely, at least not in Copenhagen,” he says. “Hopefully it will go back to normality soon, tourists will come back and Danes will enjoy more time outside.”
Besides the introduction of a wider choice of street food alternatives, and the consequent disappearance of hundreds of sausage wagons in the 70’s, the COVID19 pandemic might be the next big challenge that the traditional Danish hotdog wagon has to go through, and it will have to do so on its 100th anniversary.