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Winning season and seasoning for local frank maker at Fenway

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By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / April 1, 2009

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CHELSEA - If there's a Holy Grail of hot dogs in Boston, the Fenway Frank is it.

And in top-secret, off-season negotiations that gave new meaning to the concept of Hot Stove, Kayem Foods Inc. has snagged this sought-after prize. Monday, on Opening Day at Fenway Park, Kayem will unveil a new, bolder recipe for the Fenway Frank.

With over a million hot dogs served at the park each season, Kayem is looking to the Fenway Frank to solidify its ascent to the top of the local hot dog market. The Chelsea meat purveyor recently toppled Sara Lee's Ballpark Franks as the best-selling hot dog in stores across New England with $20 million in sales last year.

And now, with a special formula and a cutting-edge technique that makes the hot dog juicier, Kayem is hoping to wow Fenway's Faithful with a frank that it says is meatier with more distinct flavors of garlic and smoke than anything previously served in the shadow of the Green Monster. It's the first time in nearly two decades that the title of Official Hot Dog of the Boston Red Sox will return to a local company.

"What a perfect way to celebrate 100 years in business," said Matt Monkiewicz, Kayem's vice president of marketing and part of the fourth generation running the family business. As the first hot dogs rolled off the production line last week at the Chelsea factory, Monkiewicz took a deep breath and smiled: "It smells like Fenway Park."

Inside the plant, Monkiewicz and his cousin, Peter Monkiewicz, eagerly showed off the new Fenway Frank line. That's where hot dogs begin as large cuts of meat that go through the grinder, get blended with spices such as garlic, onion, and mustard, and then are cooled with a special process so the juiciness is preserved. The meat then gets stuffed into casings, twisted, and hung, and cooked in a smoker, chilled, and dried. The hot dogs are then shot through machines that remove casings, and as the franks move down the production line, inspectors pick off any imperfect ones before the hot dogs make it out of the factory.

This high-tech facility is a far cry from the hot dog empire's humble beginning in 1909, when Kazimierz Monkiewicz opened a meat market shortly after emigrating from Poland with his wife, Helena. Word of the high-quality meats and handmade sausages spread, and soon Monkiewicz began delivering to neighboring communities on a horse-drawn wagon. His four sons joined the business and it grew over the next century to include salads, pizzas, and other products, and more than 500 employees in Chelsea and Woburn.

In 2002, Kayem was struggling to compete after consolidation in the supermarket industry left only a few major chains. So the Chelsea company sold off several food lines to focus solely on its sausage and hot dog business. Over the past five years, Kayem's Al Fresco brand has grown to become the country's top chicken sausage with more than 6 million pounds expected to be sold this year in supermarkets, and Kayem's hot dogs moved into the number one slot in New England. Nationally, Kayem is the 16th largest hot dog brand.

Kayem's swing for the Fenway fences began last fall, when the Red Sox started approaching several hot dog makers after Kahn's, a division of Sara Lee, decided to end its sponsorship as the Official Hot Dog of the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park.

Kayem had to vie against other rivals, such as Armour and Hillshire Farm, that wanted to make the next Fenway Frank-branded hot dog for the Olde Towne Team. Kayem won over Red Sox executives with its tasty dogs, local flair, long history, and - likely - some serious dough. (Neither the Red Sox nor Kayem would disclose financial details of the three-year deal). Besides the million dogs served at Fenway Park, Kayem is preparing an additional 8 million of its Fenway Franks that will begin arriving this week in supermarkets across New England. Last year's sales of Fenway Franks in supermarkets totaled roughly $2.7 million, according to data from AC Nielsen provided by the company.

"There is no more high-profile place to show off your hot dog than at Fenway Park," said Sam Kennedy, the Red Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing. "They wanted to tie their brand history with the tradition of Fenway Park and the Red Sox. And we want to hear from our fans what they think of the new Fenway Frank."

After locking up the crown jewel, Kayem kept the project under wraps from most employees. A select research and development team began crafting the new Fenway Frank. The members tested about 30 different versions of the hot dog, using leaner cuts of meat than in the old Fenway Frank. Kayem adjusted levels of spices along with different heating and cooling techniques. New Englanders don't like their dogs too spicy or too smoky, according to Matt Monkiewicz, but Kayem wanted to offer a frank with bolder tastes.

Dozens of taste tests with customers, vendors, and Red Sox executives provided feedback to tweak the meaty treat until it ranked consistently as the best in taste, color, bite, and texture compared with the old Fenway Frank and rival hot dog makers.

Greg Gale, manager of Speed's Hot Dog stand in Dorchester, said hot dogs are a key part of the ballpark experience and "Fans notice the difference."

At a test taste sampling at the Globe yesterday, Gale preferred the new Fenway Frank to rival brand Ballpark.

But the bold taste was a little too much for hot dog guru and sports radio personality Eddie Andelman, who said he prefers a milder frank because he eats so many.

The franks will be waiting for Sox executives like John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino in their luxury suite on Opening Day, and general manager Theo Epstein will get a chance to taste them in the baseball operations box, according to Kennedy. (The Globe and 17 percent of the Red Sox are owned by The New York Times Co.)

Kayem is planning to go big with the new hot dog deal, with radio spots and ads plastered on the hawker boxes starting on opening day April 6. In keeping with the bitter rivalry of Sox fans everywhere, the company also plans to take a swipe at the enemies in The Bronx whenever possible. A billboard near Fenway Park will bear the tagline "Also available in grocery stores except in New York."

And Monkiewicz, ever the loyal subject of the Nation, has been telling anyone who'll listen his latest hot dog joke.

"What's difference between a Yankee dog and a Fenway Frank?

"You can get Fenway Franks in October."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.