Pronto Pup, the Corn Dog Born on the Oregon Coast
The mighty corn dog empire Pronto Pup was born behind the Rockaway Beach Natatorium after a rainy Labor Day in 1939, as ex-bootlegger turned hot dog vendor George Boyington fed stale buns to the seagulls—the rush he’d stocked up for hadn’t happened due to the weather. If only he could make the buns on demand, Boyington figured—then, there would be no worries about overstock going stale. So he decided to experiment with a cornmeal batter and a deep fryer, and honed the recipe at Portland’s Centennial Mills. Soon, he and wife Versa were slinging Pronto Pups out of a window in Portland.
A postwar Pronto Pup location at NE 30th and Sandy put out ads for a griddle operator under "Help Wanted Men" and a car hop under "Help Wanted Women." In 1949, the Boyingtons filed a trademark-infringement complaint against a couple selling a "spurious imitation" called Pluto Pups (a name that lives on today mostly in Australia, along with Dagwood Dogs, which inspired trademark infringement case, too). Meanwhile, through the ’40s the Boyingtons were also luring franchisees with live demonstrations and classified ads promising exclusive territory in far-flung places like Montana and Missouri. A handful of ’40s-era franchises endure around the Great Lakes, where Pronto Pup is a staple of beach boardwalks and state fairs.
“Every few years I’ll get a reporter from the Minnesota State Fair,” says Baxter Boyington, a son of George and Versa, who was a baby when Pronto Pup started but who worked at some later projects of his dad’s long after the family had moved to California and sold the business. At one hot-dog-on-a-stick stand in Avila Beach his father started after a noncompete period, Boyington remembers, they had pinball, a jukebox, and a dance floor.
"My dad was a really unusual guy in many ways," says Boyington, who was named after his father's bodyguard from his bootlegging days back east; in turn, his parents named "Bananas Baxter"—a deep-fried banana on a stick, rolled in powdered sugar—in their son's honor.
"He was always trying to invent or sell or do something," continues Boyington. "When you're a kid, you don't understand that not everyone's dad invented the hot dog on a stick."
"George was a real promoter," says Dave Sulmonetti, whose father and uncle (who had been George Boyington's attorney) bought the Portland-based batter provider Pronto Pup Co from Boyington around 1950. "He held events around the country" to sell franchises, Sulmonetti says, though most of those fizzled out. Through the ’50s and ’60s people put their Pronto Pup stands and trailers up for sale, assuring buyers they took only two people to run. Theoretically, operators could rake in cash all summer and take the winters off.
Alex Sulmonetti, Dave's father, got the batter into Fred Meyer, Kienow's, and other grocery stores for home cooks, but stopped after after a few decades when the packaging company they'd used went out of business. The Sulmonettis never sold franchises like Boyington did, Dave Sulmonetti says, but anyone who buys the batter can use the name, including the three Pronto Pup locations in Oregon, in Otis, Rockaway Beach, and Seaside.
Today Sulmonetti sells mostly to mobile businesses: carnivals and concessionaires across the US and Canada, including a few at the Oregon State Fair. He regularly takes an old branded trailer (which he bought from a Eugene couple he used to work for) to the Tillamook County Fair, Pacific City's Dory Days, and Portland International Raceway events, too.
Oregon Pronto Standbys
When a Pronto Pup opened in Seaside near the end of World War II, it was one of many new businesses that were part of a coastal boom brought on in part by wartime gas rationing that had many travelers sticking closer to home. Just off the sidewalk on busy Broadway, the Seaside location today is crammed next to bumper cars and a tilt-a-whirl. The long-standing Pronto Pup in Otis, on the way to Lincoln City, is one of the original franchises from the 1940s. It's now part of Otis Pizzeria.
The Rockaway spot, a few blocks from Pronto Pup's birthplace, was opened in 2016 by a Portland attorney who erected a giant fiberglass corn dog on its roof. That’s pretty corny, as is the rideable corn dog out front, where "adults seem to have more fun than the kids,” says Diane Langer, who bought the shop with her partner in late 2021.
"It was always one of those things in the back of your mind, to own your own place someday," says Langer, who started joking about buying the Rockaway Beach Pronto when she saw news stories about it being for sale in early 2021. As the year wore on, though, the jokes turned real. Soon she and her partner were part of the Great Resignation, leaving their jobs at a Tacoma automotive business and trying to figure out how to keep Christmas lights attached to a giant corn dog in the driving coastal winds. Langer's brother made some antlers for the dog, too, and her brother-in-law helped install them: "He's a retired lineman, so he's used to heights," Langer says.
Michigan: Secret Pup Hot Spot
About 2,000 miles east of Rockaway Beach, on the shore of Lake Huron's Tawas Bay, another new Pronto Pup owner was gearing up for the summer season when we spoke in May. Last year, Margo Larkin took over a Pronto Pup shack with her sister and sister's fiancé. "I honestly never had a Pronto Pup until we bought this stand," she says. The cart offers not just the classic dog, but other regular items and rotating experiments. There's an eggplant option, drizzled with honey and covered in toasted sesame seeds, and they've used the batter with deep-fried Oreos, apple rings, fried green tomatoes, and more, served alongside custom-elixir lemonades and frozen pops. Says Larkin: "My sister and I have always been very artsy kind of people. We both really like making stuff, either with materials or with food."
The business Larkin and her family took over was started by a man originally from Grand Haven, across the Lower Peninsula on the edge of Lake Michigan. The beach town is home to one of the original franchises Boyington sold in 1947.
"For years everyone thought my dad invented it," says Carl Nelson, whose father and great-uncle caught one of Boyington's presentations and soon spent $600 constructing a nine-by-seven-foot building in Grand Haven. Nelson started worked at his dad's hot dog shack when he was 13 and never really left. The cash-only shack is still going strong after 75 years, though it lost some customers after Nelson posted a tirade in 2020 on the business's Facebook page in which he claimed mask mandates and the fight against COVID-19 were "not a health issue" but a political one, suggested the Black Lives Matter movement "has nothing to do with racism," and likened the media to Hitler. The post set off dueling protests at the hot dog stand. Nelson eventually posted an apology for having put the statement on the business Facebook page instead of his personal one—but he doesn't disavow the language in the original post and says he stands by it.
The incident prompted some other Pronto Pups to note on social media that they were all independent businesses with no relation to each other. One was a food truck 30 miles away in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that pops up in brewery parking lots with local-beer-battered dogs, cheddar jalapeño sauce, and fried "pickle pups" made with Michigan's own Brickman's dill pickles and served with a "truck-made" dill aioli.
Owner Andy Bogart bought the truck in April 2020—at the time, he was running a food delivery business that had just gotten five times busier, and he was looking for something else that seemed pandemic-proof.
"People love their Pronto Pups," Bogart says of the treat that's become a Michigan staple. He contracts with the local Kent Quality Foods on a custom turkey-beef-pork dog and sells Detroit's own Faygo sodas, adding a local feel to the Oregon-born item. Bogart, a beer lover, says he'd love to make the trek from Grand Rapids to Oregon someday, try some local brews, and meet Dave Sulmonetti. He'd definitely head out to Pronto Pup's birthplace in Rockaway, too.
"I want to ride the corn dog."