Dear Cecil: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been annoyed at the fact that hot dogs come ten to a package while buns come in either eight- or twelve-packs (usually eight around here). My girlfriend says it’s because kids often eat wieners without buns, and it’s just thoughtful packaging by the meat packers. I think she’s suffering from a sodium nitrite overdose, and that what we have here is a conspiracy between Oscar Mayer and Mrs. Karl to keep us endlessly buying either hot dogs or buns to use up the leftovers. What’s the story? Bjorn B., Madison, Wisconsin
Your mistake, Bjorn, is in assuming that businesspeople always have some rational basis for their actions. On the contrary, my experience is that many corporate decisions are arrived at by a process not far removed from consulting sheep entrails. Things are further complicated in this instance by the fact that the principal players are suffering from a case of collective amnesia. Nobody at any of the major hot dog companies can offer a convincing rationale for why things are packaged the way they are. Nonetheless, by a system of anthropological inquiry not unlike Margaret Mead’s researches among the Samoans, I have been able to construct the following hypothesis: you get ten hot dogs and eight buns per package because meat packers like things that come in pounds and bakers hate things that come in tens.
The meat-packing side of this is easiest to understand. Your standard-issue hot dog, a product that generations of consumers have found to be convenient, comes ten to the pound. Jumbo hot dogs come eight to the pound, and occasionally you’ll see some symptom of wretched excess that comes four to the pound. If you’ve got 10,000 pounds of hot dogs, therefore, you know you’ve got 10,000 packages. A few packers deviate from this rule and give you, say, eight standard dogs per 12-ounce package, but they’re in the minority.
The situation with bakers is a bit murkier. Here are some of the “explanations” you’ll hear:
- We do it that way because everybody else does. If we started doing ten to the package we’d have to charge more, consumers wouldn’t notice they were getting more, and we’d lose business. Fine, but why did the first guy start packing eight?
- There is something inherent in baking tray or oven design that makes ten impractical to produce. Not true. Continental Baking, maker of the Wonder brand and one of the largest companies in the industry, sells both eight-packs and ten-packs, depending on “consumer preferences and local market conditions.” What this means is that if enough people want ten-packs and everybody else is selling them, Continental will too. St. Louis, for one, is said to be a big ten-pack town.
- Ten-packs are a clumsy shape and tend to get broken up when they’re tossed around on supermarket shelves. This is close to the truth, I think (see below), but obviously not that close, since Continental somehow manages to cope.
The true explanation, in my opinion, is that bakers just don’t like tens. They prefer dozens, or more generally, multiples of three and four, notably four, six, eight, and twelve. These quantities lend themselves to compact packaging — three rows of four, two rows of three, two slabs of two by two (e.g., hamburger buns), and so on. Ten lends itself only to one row of ten or two rows of five, which are seldom compact shapes. Therefore, the baking mind-set — and here’s where we start getting into anthropology — is such that you instinctively regard ten as an unwieldy number. When the pioneers of bun baking were trying to figure out how to package their product, they probably figured what the hey, eight makes a squarish package, so that’s what we’ll go with, without even considering the unique circumstances that made ten more appropriate. The situation has been allowed to continue because the Teeming Millions meekly submit to it. Oscar Mayer says that of the 50,000 or so consumer letters they get each year, only 10 or 15 complain about the hot dog/bun mismatch.
A few cynics, some of them employed in this office, don’t buy the preceding analysis, and regard it with something approaching scorn. I pray for these people every night. Some of us are capable of daring leaps of imagination. The rest just pick nits.
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