Volume 37, Issue 2, February 2002

theBUSINESS

Going to the Dogs
It’s Always the Same with Every Other Business
- by Lyle R. Hill

It had been over a year since I had heard his voice, but that didn’t keep me from recognizing it instantly. It’s so unusual … so almost non-human. Then again, virtually everything about him is. 

“Hey Mooch I’m sorry about your uncle,” I stated after we had exchanged the usual pleasantries at the beginning of our phone conversation.

While I had only met Johnny ‘The Mooch’ Rago’s uncle on two occasions, he had impressed me as being a decent kind of guy. Like all of the males in the Rago clan, his uncle carried his own symbolic moniker … a nickname if you will. And the particular uncle of which we were now speaking was known as Sammy ‘The Slab’ Rago. He had owned a funeral home over on 35th street not too far from Comiskey Park, the place where the Chicago White Sox play.

“He seemed like a really nice person,” I continued.

“He was a very nice person. In fact, Hill, according to the provisions of his will, I actually inherited his business.”

“Mooch, what do you know about running a funeral home?” I asked somewhat in shock.

“Not the funeral home, Hill. He left his hot dog stand to me.”

Interesting People
Now a lot of people can’t stand The Mooch but I really think he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. His life is so unusual … so bizarre. And strange and unusual things are always happening to him. To be honest, in some unexplainable way, I actually find him fascinating. And somehow, at this precise moment, I new I was in for some type of a story that could only come from a guy like Johnny The Mooch Rago.

“I didn’t know your uncle owned a hot dog stand.”

“Oh yeah, Hill. He was a very progressive businessman … big on vertical integration. To him, the hot dog stand and the funeral home were a natural combination. He even had this coupon program where you earned a free headstone after you purchased 250 hot dogs or 75 Italian sausage sandwiches. He always said the place was a gold mine.”

“Wow, Mooch, this is really something. So now you’re in the hot dog business. But what happened to the funeral home?” 

“He left that to my cousin Frankie The Fish Rago. You know, the one from Cicero.”

I really didn’t know Frankie ‘The Fish’ but like I said, all of Rago’s male relatives … and he had a bunch of them … had nicknames and somehow, those nicknames always tied into what the nicknamed person did for a living. This situation had never been discussed between The Mooch and me so I casually brought it up.

“Mooch,” I began, “It’s come to my attention that all of your male relatives have these nicknames that somehow are always tied into their occupations. What’s the deal there?”

“It’s a family tradition, Hill, brought over from the old country. Whenever a baby boy comes into the world, the closest and oldest male in the family picks the baby’s nickname.”

“But Mooch, that doesn’t make any sense. How could the baby’s ultimate occupation be known at birth?”

“You know, Hill, I never thought about it. But listen, I didn’t call you to talk about family traditions, I called you to tell you about the hot dog business.”

“OK, I’ll drop it for now but let me guess … cousin Frankie’s a fisherman or owns his own charter boat…right?”

“Actually, Hill, he’s a busboy at Red Lobster, but that’s it. No more family questions.”

“Alright, Mooch. Back to the hot dog stand story.”

Business Worries
“Well, Hill, the hot dog stand has taken a turn for the worse. I’m ready to throw in the towel. It’s been a disaster.”

“Why, Mooch … what happened?”

“Everything, Hill. First, about a month after I got the joint, a big national player opened up right across the street from me and starts selling hot dogs at half my price.”

“How can he do that and survive, Mooch?”

“Well to begin with, I found out that he’s importing his hot dogs from China. You know, my Uncle Sammy The Slab Rago was always an OEM guy … no foreign dogs.”

“But Mooch, do they taste the same? Isn’t there a difference in quality?”

“To tell you the truth Hill, most of the customers can’t tell the difference, and those who can seem to prefer the foreign dogs. And on top of that, they’re getting their buns from Mexico at a fraction of what I’m paying and it is impossible to tell the Mexican bread from the stuff I buy locally.”

“Can’t you do something about this? Did you complain to the government?”

“Yes I did. In fact, I called my uncle, Leo ‘The Lip’ Rago and explained everything to him.”

“And your Uncle Leo The Lip … he’s a politician right?”

“No, Hill, he’s a lawyer. But his brother and one of my other uncles, Harry ‘The Hack’ Rago, is and I figured between the two of them I could come up with a plan of attack. You know, maybe a hot dog dumping complaint against the Chinese or something.”

“Yeah … I like that. What did they say?”

“They told me I could try that approach, but the government moves slowly and that these things are hard to prove And even if you win in court, ultimately the dumpers figure out a way to get around it.”

“Gee Mooch, this sounds tough. The Chinese are dumping and the Mexicans are baking. You’ve got a serious problem here. So what did you do next?”

“Well, I went to see another uncle of mine … Earl ‘The Pearl’ Rago.”

“I remember him, Mooch. He’s the guy you introduced me to when I bumped into you at the hockey game last year.”

“No, no, no … the guy at the hockey game was Earl The Pearl’s son, Earl ‘The Squirrel’ Rago. Earl The Squirrel works for the county forestry department … The Pearl owns a jewelry store.”
 
“I gotta tell you, Mooch, this is starting to give me a headache.”

“Hang in there, Hill. After I’m done, I’ll set you up with my cousin Nicky The Needle Rago.”

“I take it he’s a doctor?”

“Actually, Hill, he’s a tailor. But nothing makes you feel better than a nice fitting suit or two. Now where was I?”

“You were telling me that Leo The Lip and Harry The Hack couldn’t help so you went to see Earl The Pearl who is not to be confused with his son Earl The Squirrel who works for the forestry department.”

“Hill … I’m impressed.”

“Well, I’m getting more nauseous by the minute, Mooch, so you gotta pick up the pace.

Looking for Answers
“OK, OK. But if you’re really getting sick I can get you an appointment with my …”

“Stop it, Mooch. Finish the story.”

“Alright. So I go see my uncle and he tells me that it’s not just the hot dog business that’s in this predicament. He told me all kinds of businesses are faced with this same problem. He also said that you can’t run your business on emotion. You have to make hard choices … do what you gotta do to survive. Be creative … become super efficient … look at new business opportunities and new ways of doing old things. It’s like war out there sometimes and only the strong will make it. He also told me the business world is no place for amateurs.”

“Wow, this guy sounds pretty good.”

“Oh he is good, Hill. And after we had talked for a few hours, he laid out for me what my three choices were.”

“What were they, Mooch? I’d like to know because believe it or not I’ve got some of these same concerns.”

“Well, he told me I could try to diversify … you know, introduce new products and stuff … which sounds like a lot of work. Or I can fight fire with fire by buying my dogs from the same place my competitors are buying them, which in memory of my late Uncle Sammy The Slab Rago I could never do. Or I could make things good with my uncle Angelino ‘The Agent’ and after everything was in place, then put in a call to my cousin Tommy … which after a few moments of reflection I decided to do.”

“Wait a minute, Mooch … what’s your cousin Tommy’s nickname?”

“He’s known as Tommy ‘The Torch’ Rago.”

“I see. Did you set a date yet?”

“Yeah, Hill, that’s actually why I called. Next Thursday. And bring your own marshmallows.” 

HILL Lyle R. Hill is president of MTH Industries of Chicago, Ill. lyle@glass.com


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