Driving Around the U.S. Inside the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
For one year, recent college graduates can work their buns off for the hot dog empire. Here’s a firsthand account of what that’s like from a former Hotdogger.
Dominic Ricci was 50 miles outside of Orlando, Florida when I reached him on the phone from the opposite coast. I was sitting at the desk in my apartment wrapped up in a fleece blanket. As for Ricci, he was riding in the passenger’s seat of the legendary Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
For one year, beginning in June 2017 and ending the following summer, Ricci and his Wienermobile partner, Elise, lived a peripatetic life all for the sake of hot dogs. They drove the kooky vehicle back and forth across the country, racking up 23,000 miles in the first six months alone.
Ricci and Elise were what you’d call Hotdoggers, recent college graduates hired by Oscar Mayer to drive the company’s Wienermobiles around the country for a full year. Only 12 Hotdoggers are hired, and they’re split off into pairs and assigned specific regions of the U.S. to cover. Each week, the teams visit a new city or town, staying there for a few days to meet with locals, talk with the press, and hand out free merchandise.
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin — where Oscar Mayer had its headquarters until 2015 — Ricci saw the Wienermobile a couple of times as a kid and had at least one wiener whistle stashed amongst his toys. A lover of hot dogs, he told OK Whatever he used to eat them cold, straight out of the package.
Still, he never planned on spending a year inside the Wienermobile when he grew up.
Unlike others in the program, some of whom had their sights on being a Hotdogger since they were 10, Ricci wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after he graduated. He learned about the Hotdogger program through an upperclassman at the University of Wisconsin, who was hired by Oscar Mayer after graduation. Ricci followed him on Snapchat and Facebook, and enjoyed all of his photos and videos revealing life as a Wienermobile driver.
“It looked fun,” he said. In addition to traveling — something Ricci loves — the job also seemed to involve a lot of schmoozing and interacting with people — other things the self-described “extrovert” loves.
When Ricci got the position, even his parents were stoked for him. “They were like, ‘You’re going to have so much fun. You’re perfect for it!’ ”
They were right. Ricci loved being a Hotdogger and relished the time he spent traveling to new cities and interacting with fans.
“I woke up everyday and was like, ‘What’s happening?’ ” he said. “Like, it was unreal. I loved every second of it.”
Throughout the course of his year-long job as a Hotdogger, OK Whatever spoke with Ricci multiple times about his journeys on the road. Here’s everything we learned about what life is like when you spend half your days inside of a giant sausage-on-wheels.
College grads have been driving the Wienermobile for 30 years.
When the Wienermobile was invented in 1936 by Oscar Mayer’s nephew Carl G., it was mainly used as an advertorial and promotional tool. In a way, it still is, but since 1988, when the Hotdogger program started, it’s also served as a unique first job opportunity for recent college grads. Each year, thousands of applicants vie for one of the 12 Hotdogger positions. Those who make the cut seem well aware of how lucky they are. Ricci’s boss told him that one former Hotdogger deferred dental school for a year in order to do the program.
The interview process for the job of Hotdogger is not as weird as you’d think.
“A lot of people think it’s, like, this crazy interview, but it’s pretty much a regular interview,” said Ricci, who met with Oscar Mayer recruiters on his campus. (You can also apply online and interview via Skype.) Most of the interview consisted of answering questions that gauged one’s ability to work well with others, travel responsibly, and handle things on the fly. Surprisingly, there was no driving test at that point in the process and the only strange thing about the interview was that applicants have to sing the Oscar Mayer jingle on camera.
After you’re chosen to be a Hotdogger, you go to “Hotdog High” for two weeks.
During this part of the process — which included training from the police department in Madison, Wisconsin — Ricci not only got to bond with his fellow Hotdoggers, but he also learned how to drive the cumbersome Wienermobile. He started by driving a van with taped-up windows meant to emulate what it’s like driving the window-less Wienermobile. After proving he could do that, he got to steer an actual Wienermobile around a parking lot, and then ultimately on city streets and highways. “It was like Driver’s Ed all over again,” he said.
Hotdoggers should love socializing and talking to people.
Being a Hotdogger is not just about driving the Wienermobile, but about showing it off, too. For five to six hours a day, Ricci would spend time in grocery store and shopping mall parking lots and at local events — like food competitions and dog shows — so that people could check out and tour the inside of the Wienermobile, take photos, and get free wiener whistles. Ricci estimated that he mets “thousands” of people each week.
“You have to be an extrovert,” he said. “You have to be able to talk to anyone and want to talk to anyone because that’s kind of the name of the game. Your job is basically to make people smile. And not a lot of people can’t do that every single day.”
Hotdoggers should enjoy traveling.
Every Monday, Ricci and his partner drove to a new city or town and stayed there for a week before moving on to the next spot. In fact, the constant traveling was one of the reasons Ricci applied for the job. He knew he didn’t want to be pinned down to a 9-to-5 office job, and he figures if he hadn’t gotten the Hotdogger position, he probably would have taught English abroad. Because you’re always on-the-go as a Hotdogger, you also have to be cool with “living out of a suitcase for a year.”
The main goal of a Hotdogger is not to promote Oscar Mayer, but to create memories.
Ricci remembers seeing the Wienermobile as a child, and so do many other people. He knows this because they often shared stories with him about their first time seeing it. “We’re trying to create all these ‘remember when’s’ for everyone,” he said. “The Wienermobile has been around for 82 years and we want people to remember that time they saw it and have that with them their whole lives.”
Being a Hotdogger is not all work; there’s downtime, too.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are typically off-days for Hotdoggers, chances for them to do something other than stand around the Wienermobile handing out whistles and stickers. Ricci had a foldable bike with him and he liked to ride around cities, go out to eat, or visit museums on his off days. When he was in Florida, he caught an Orlando Magic game. But he wasn’t always keen to go out. There were days when he merely stayed in the hotel and watched TV because sometimes you just need some alone time.
The Wienermobile is not as big as it seems.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Wienermobile knows that it’s huge — or at least it appears to be. At 27-feet long and 11-feet high, it’s definitely larger than most cars on the road, but it’s smaller on the inside than you’d think. Ricci said that most people assume the vehicle had a kitchen and a bathroom, but that’s not the case. It actually only has six seats, a TV set, and a small closet in the back where they keep their suitcases, cleaning supplies, and Wienermobile merch.
Hotdoggers don’t sleep inside the Wienermobile.
Getting asked if he and Elise slept inside the Wienermobile was the number one question Ricci said he always heard. They didn’t. The Wienermobile is too small and has neither a bed, kitchen, nor bathroom. Instead, Hotdoggers stay in hotels, and Ricci and Elise had a special penchant for choosing bed and breakfasts. Not only did they like the quirkiness of the owners — “Usually whomever owns them is an interesting person who has a lot of their own stories” — but they found them to be more comfy and homey than hotels.
Everyone loves you when you are a Hotdogger.
“No one was ever mad to see us,” Ricci said. “Everyone was just kind of happy.” People apparently treat Wienermobile drivers like celebrities. When they arrived in Poplar Bluffs, Missouri — a small city 40 miles north of Arkansas with a population of 17,000 — almost every single person came to see the Wienermobile. “That was so cool to see how appreciative and generous everyone was,” Ricci said.
He and his partner also received free pie from a diner (also in Missouri) and invitations to people’s houses for home-cooked meals. During the summer, while they were posting up with the Wienermobile at an outdoor shopping mall in South Carolina, someone bought them milkshakes from Wendy’s because it was so hot outside.
Perhaps the coolest perk they experienced was when they got offered a private plane ride over the Smoky Mountains by a pilot that they met. “You never know what to expect,” Ricci said. “There’s the possibility everyday for some random, cool thing to happen to you.”
To keep the pay-it-forward cycle going, Ricci and his partner frequently gave rides to people in the Wienermobile on their days off.
Driving the Wienermobile pays well when you think about it.
Hotdoggers receive a salary, health insurance, and a weekly stipend to pay for gas and lodging. Ricci pointed out that Hotdoggers also get to save money overall because they don’t have to pay rent for the whole year. He wouldn’t reveal how much he made other than saying “it’s competitive for an entry level marketing job.” Not that he cared about the money that much anyways. “Honestly, the job was so much fun and so rewarding each day in and out that I didn’t need to get paid. I got paid in smiles.”
Hotdoggers are generally good drivers.
As far as Ricci knew, there have been no serious accidents involving a Wienermobile. “Nothing major,” he said. He’s also pretty sure that no Wienermobiles have been stolen or broken into. But some Hotdoggers — not him — have gotten speeding tickets and scratched their buns in minor accidents.
There’s a strong Hotdogger alumni base.
On Facebook, there are two private alumni groups for Hotdoggers each with over a few hundred members. According to Ricci, current Hotdoggers post their whereabouts on them to see if any alumni are in the area and want to catch up. When they were in Orange Beach, Alabama, Ricci and Elise went to the beach, hung out, and got dinner with a former Hotdogger.
“The craziest thing about that is you meet up with someone who you have never met before, and it’s like meeting an old friend for breakfast or lunch,” he said. “They’re really the only other people that know what you're going through right now.”
Hooking up amongst Hotdoggers is apparently not common.
Ricci was pretty sure that no one in his Hotdogger class had hooked up. He and Elise definitely didn’t. He considered her more of a “best friend” and that’s where their relationship stopped. But he said he wouldn’t be surprised if Hotdoggers from past years had gotten it on with each other. “I’m sure it’s happened,” he said, “though everyone keeps it pretty professional.”
Ricci thinks he’s improved as a driver since becoming a Hotdogger.
Though he said he’s always been good behind a wheel, Ricci feels like he’s more cognizant of his surroundings after the many hours he’s clocked driving the Wienermobile. For example, he’ll consider the width of an alley and whether his vehicle can fit in it before blindly heading down it. On days off, when he had to use the Wienermobile to drive somewhere, he made a habit of calling ahead to see if they had a space where he could park it.
Being a Hotdogger will change you.
Traveling and spending so much time on the road can really shape a person. Ricci believes he is now more confident and better at expressing himself after his year as a Hotdogger. He’s also quicker when making decisions, when before he was more of a “go with the flow” kind of person. Even Ricci’s parents have noticed a difference in their son, telling him he’s “developed and changed for the better.”
Now that’s it over, Ricci doesn’t know what will come next.
He has a little more clarity now on the kind of career he’d like, but overall Ricci said he’s still “kind of piecing it together.” He knows he doesn’t want an office job and that he’ll be restless if he has to settle down and live in one place. A former Hotdogger he met used to work on Disney cruises, and Ricci has considered that as an option because it involves both traveling and meeting people.
He’s also decided that his “end goal in life” is to own a bed and breakfast. While it would involve a lot of work and money, he thinks it could be “so much fun,” especially because of all the interesting people you’d get to interact with.
Until then, though, he’s not fretting over his next move. “I know I’ll find something,” he said. “I’m not too worried.”