Why Don’t Hot Dogs and Hot Dog Buns Come in Packs of Equal Number?

Jason H. asks: Here’s one for you I’ve never found a satisfactory answer on. Why don’t hot dogs and hot dog buns come in packs of the same number? Has it always been this way?

hot-dogsYes, finally today we are going to answer perhaps the most oft asked question we get in our inbox, a question that has been perplexing mothers, stoned teenagers and lazy comedians for decades: why do hot dog buns come in packs of eight, when hot dogs are (usually) sold in packs of ten?

For our American readers who’ve been dealing with this infuriatingly mundane problem for years, we’d like to point out that you’re not alone in your struggle. For example, the writer of this piece is from the UK and over here, while hot dogs are usually sold in cans of eight (yes cans), hot dog buns are sold in packs of  six. While the numbers may be a little different across the pond, the result is the same- extra hot dogs lying around with no bun to put them in. So why is it that these two industries whose interests and customer bases are so closely intertwined have failed to pick up on this seemingly obvious gap in their marketing strategy? Is it really just that they want you to have extra of one or the other, so you’ll continue to buy them both in a vicious, but profitable, cycle?

In truth, you can find hot dog packages containing eight hot dogs to match with the buns, but by far the more popular is the ten pack in the states. How did this come to be? The most common explanation for this is that, as with many meat products, hot dogs are sold by the pound and because the average hot dog weighs around 1.6 ounces, this invariably means that your average packet of hot dogs is going to contain ten. According to The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, this was a decision reached by manufactures in the 1940s, prior to which hot dogs were sold by butchers in varying quantities and sizes. (See What’s in a Hot Dog and How is It Made)

However, as mentioned, hot dogs are sometimes sold in packs of eight, often labelled as “jumbo” hot dogs with the weight usually still coming out at a pound. But the ten to a pound rule is by far still the most popular, whether because that’s what people are used to or because the bread to meat ratio is simply to the liking of the masses when the dogs are 1.6 ounces. So barring the hot dog manufacturers deciding to throw out the traditional “pound per pack” metric en masse, this isn’t likely to change anytime soon among most manufacturers. (As with all things, there are exceptions.)

So what about the bread?

Now, bread isn’t really sold by any particular weight in the U.S, though historically in the UK it was- after The Bread Act of 1822, all loaves had to weigh a pound or a multiple thereof. This law, which stemmed from another law passed in 1266 called the Assize of Bread and Ale, was in effect right up until WWII during which it was decided that all loaves had to weigh 14 instead of 16 ounces (or a multiple thereof) to save flour. This soon became the law of the land starting in 1963.  Thankfully for us Brits wanting more diverse loaves, this law has since been abolished. Hot dog buns didn’t really fall under that law, but we thought it was interesting, and since interesting stuff is kind of what we do here, we couldn’t help but mention it.

So what’s stopping bakers from simply making bread buns in packs of ten if they’re not packaged by weight like the meat is? Well, really nothing at all except tradition. This isn’t so easy to change without incurring some expense as changing machinery to accommodate the new package sizes and layout would be no trivial thing. Besides the machinery, other things like pans, newly sized packaging, shipping containers, etc. would need changed. For instance, one of the most common types of pan used to make hot dog buns on an industrial scale bakes them in clusters of four. (For those curious, here’s an industrial hot dog bun pan shaker showing the trays. It’s actually kind of mesmerizing.)

Again, while pans that bake buns in numbers divisible by ten do exist, they’re far less common as is the automatic machinery to package them in a 5×2 arrangement. To incur the extra cost of modifying perfectly good working equipment, a company would need a good reason.  And, as Oscar Meyer noted a few decades ago, only about 1 in 5,000 or so correspondents they receive from customers is a complaint about hot dog buns not commonly coming in packs of ten like the traditional packs of hot dogs. So lack of customer demand (particularly today when jumbo dogs in their packs of eight are readily available to those who like to up their meat to bread ratio) has resulted in little interest in most large baking companies investing the money to start mass producing buns in packs of ten. (Again, there are always exceptions.)

It has also been speculated that as people may or may not bother to count how many buns are in a package while they shop, and the package of ten will inherently cost more, if another brand is putting them out in packages of eight, a casual quick-grab customer might simply always go for the other brand, instead of the one sold in packages of ten. While more leisurely shoppers might not make such a mistake, never underestimate the coupon clipping shopper in a hurry on their way home from work. And, of course, despite it all costing the same in the end, many-a-driver will choose not to fill their car full of fuel in favor of saving money now.  That same individual looking to buy buns may make the same type of decision when choosing the eight vs. ten pack, again favouring the manufacturer who goes with the traditional eight. For a little more hard data in this web of speculative theories, as noted by Eitan Gerstner of Georgetown University and James D. Hess of North Carolina State University, nearly 40% of people they surveyed in their study on this very topic indicated that they do not regularly compare package sizes vs. unit prices when determining which of some item to buy, perhaps lending some credence to this particular theory as to why there would be little benefit in a particular hot dog bun maker making the switch, or offering both.

In any event, at this point you might be wondering why the bakers sold them in packs of eight and twelve in the first place?  For this, we can’t be nearly as definitive as with the origin of the ten pack of hot dogs, and must continue to delve into the tenuous realm of speculation, which we normally do not like to do. Numerous theories have been thrown about, mostly bad, but principally it’s generally thought it started out that way as bakers classically seem to like to work in multiples of four (or really two, if you prefer), rather than multiples of five or other odd numbers. As to why, it has been speculated that multiples of four are easier to work with. For instance, with multiples of four you get more uniform packaging than with multiples of five, which potentially may have an odd man out depending on the configuration. Multiples of two or four, on the other hand, are always going to be even, leading bakers to tend to be biased in favour of it when making product that are sold with multiple items in a single package.

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Bonus Facts:

  • You’ll often hear that the name “hot dog” comes from a cartoon drawn by T.A. Dorgan during a New York Giants baseball game at the Polo Grounds around 1902-1906 (date varies depending on who’s telling the story). At this game, he supposedly observed a vendor, Harry Stevens, selling “hot dachshund sausages”. Dorgan, being inspired by this, drew a dachshund in a hot dog bun, but didn’t know how to spell dachshund, so just wrote “hot dog”. As with so many such cute origin anecdotes, this is unequivocally false. For more on this and how the term “hot dog” came about, see: The Name “Hot Dog” Was Not Coined at a New York Giants Baseball Game
  • The name “Frankfurter” comes from the fact that a popular hot dog-like sausage was originally made in Frankfurt Germany (Frankfurter meaning “of Frankfurt”).  The name was brought over to America sometime in the late 19th century from German immigrants who were familiar with the Frankfurter sausage.
  • It isn’t known exactly when somebody first got the bright idea to put sausages in a bun, however, the first historical reference of sausages themselves goes all the way back to one of the first books ever written, Homer’s Odyssey: “As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted… “
  • While it is unlikely that the practice of putting sausages in some sort of bread only happened recently (bread being a staple food throughout history and sausages being relatively popular in many cultures), the first recorded instances of sausages being sold encased in bread come from around the 1860s where various German immigrants sold frankfurters with milk rolls and sauerkraut on the streets of New York City. There are numerous stories of people having claimed to be the first to put the sausage in a bun, but nobody knows for sure which, if any, are true. A common theme among all of these stories is that the idea behind the bun was to be able to serve the hot dogs to customers on the streets without the customers burning their hands on the hot sausages.
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  • Iwantahotdog

    Now I want a hot dog

  • Tex

    After reading the line, “In any event, at this point you might be wondering why the bakers sold them in packs of eight and twelve in the first place?” it comes to mind that bakers tend to divide the raw product in half and half again and half two more times …. Its much easier than trying divide into 5ths or 3rds.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Tex: Good point. 🙂

  • (the dog)

    Really? You don’t know?
    Any dog – and I mean ANY dog – can tell you who the extra two sausages are for.

  • Yocheved

    When I was on vacation in Frankfurt, I decided to order Frankfurter sausages to see what they were like. Surprisingly (or not), they tasted exactly like cheap American hot dogs.

    I was on a mission to eat food from each place I went to, that had a corresponding American food. I ate a danish in Denmark, a hamburger in Hamgurg, etc. It was fun!

    • Rob

      Steak Hamburg Style originated in Hamburg, Germany (from sea traders bringing back Russian Steak Tartare which they themselves adopted from the Mongolians) but forming it into a patty and putting it on a bun is actually uniquely American (albeit invented to attract business during a wave of German immigration).

  • Rajalda

    Personally i have a tendency to require extra amount of filling,and i assume there are others like me.

  • Rob

    As an amateur baker I think I can shed more light on the bun conundrum. If you have a ball of dough it is fairly easy to divide it in two (certainly easier than trying to divide it in three). That give you two equal sized dough balls and each one of those can easily be divided in half to give you four that can be divided in half to give you eight, etc. etc.

    Most items baked from dough are going to be 1, 2 or some multiple of 2 as it is simply easier to divide dough in half than into any other portion.

  • Namma

    All of the arguments of “traditional” blah-blah are moot and without merit when you consider MODERN 21st century factories including baking FACTORIES.

    These are all done on machines run by computers nowadays therefore the NUMBERS are an easy fix. Same with the pans.

    Big whoopee doo that it will cost them some money to make a few small changes. THAT IS the cost of business that SHOULD NOT be passed onto the consumer.

    The end reason for these type of anomalies is that it serves GREED and only greed. Nothing else is a factor.

  • Oliver

    Actually, “Frankfurters” come from Austria…
    In Germany they are called “Wiener”.
    (German, more detailed: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiener_W%C3%BCrstchen
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_sausage)
    Here in Vienna the tale is told like this: A butcher from Frankfurt came to Vienna, bringing with him this recipie (which he got from somewhere in France, as far as I remember). The “new” sausage was popular and was named after the hometown of the butcher – Frankfurter… Then the sausage (recipie) was reexported to Germany – and as it came from Vienna it became the “Wiener Würstchen” (which translates as “Little sausages from Vienna”…).

  • Rebecca Brooks

    If you don’t have a dog at home, here’s what to do with extra hot dogs when you run out of buns: slice up a hot dog, set water boiling to make a package of instant ramen, and put the hot dog slices in with the water while the ramen cooks. Yummy!