You see them at festivals and fairs across the country. At sporting events. At food stalls for any occasion, really. They are an American classic: corn dogs. And it may surprise you that the beloved fried food on a stick was invented on the Oregon coast.
Along Highway 101 in Rockaway Beach, an off-the-beaten-path roadside attraction is not to be missed. Drivers are likely to be surprised to see a giant corn dog on the roof. It’s a huge fiberglass corn dog. A Soon Puppy, to be exact.
“As far as I know, the history of the Pronto Pup was created in Rockaway in the late 1930s, early 40s, a little closer to town,” said Diane Langer, who bought the modern-day Original Pronto Pup with her husband at the end of 2021. .
The birth of the Pronto Pup dates back to Labor Day 1939. It was on that day that George Boyington, who ran a Rockaway Beach hot dog stand with his wife, had an idea while sitting down with overstocked stale buns. How about a dough that can be cooked to order?
Boyington determined a quick and delicious solution. The new sandwich on a stick became a point of local pride.
The Original Pronto Pup first opened in 2016, as a tribute to the culinary creation invented in the city nearly eight decades earlier.
Taking Soon Pups to the whole country
Shortly after Boyington finalized the recipe, he began mass production of Pronto Pup batter mix in Portland. The product soon gained national attention. Boyington registered the trademark and began franchising the business.
Today, Pronto Pups are especially popular in the Midwest. Gregg Karnis, owner of Minnesota’s Pronto Pup franchise, has had a lifetime of experience with Pronto Pups. in that region of the country.
Karnis’s father was a Marine who finished his service in 1944 in Portland. After leaving his boat in town, old man Karnis found out about Pronto Pups and became one of the first franchise owners, opening a store in Chicago.
“[The business] it was an instant hit. … At the time, the whole concept of a hot dog on a batter and a stick was literally sweeping the nation and people were buying up produce club franchises from coast to coast,” Karnis said of his father’s franchise.
The elder Karnis was then asked to bring Soon Pups to the Minnesota State Fair in 1947. They’ve been a fair staple operated by the Karnis family ever since, and it’s a full-fledged operation.
“We have a main commissary, which is almost 3,500 square feet, where we just do the production. We have a retail point of sale in the front, like a shop window, so to speak. But the whole back of the building is production. … The dough is mixed. Delivered to locations. We have a total of eight locations at state fairgrounds.”
Over the course of the Minnesota State Fair, people buy a lot of Pronto Pups.
“On average, we process about 36 tons of hot dogs at a 12-day state fair, and we typically mix over a hundred tons of dough. So it’s hundreds of thousands of puppies that are served each year,” Karnis said.
If those numbers don’t prove Minnesota’s love for the Pronto Pups, state lawmakers officially recognized them in 2016.
“We were called to the Minnesota State Legislature in St. Paul, the capital,” for a resolution recognizing Pronto Pups’ contribution to the Minnesota State Fair, Karnis said, recalling the occasion.
“And it was probably the warmest, most moving moment of my entire life. Because in that moment, I realized that, boy, what my mom and dad brought to Minnesota is so much more than I ever imagined it would be.”
While Minnesota has embraced the Pronto Pup for generations, the trademark batter still hails from Portland. And in Rockaway Beach, where The Original Pronto Pup location was named to honor the pup’s local origins, there’s also a strong following.
A ‘cheesy’ tradition
A corn dog may seem like more of a lunch or dinner meal. At The Original Pronto Pup, people are eager to place an order as soon as the doors open at 10am.
“It’s actually quite amazing when you realize how big of a following the Pronto Pups have, and when people walk in and say, ‘We drove three hours to come and have a Pronto Pup.’ Or, ‘We come from Idaho.’ Or, ‘We come from Michigan,’” Langer said. “A lot of times they say, ‘We hope they open today so we can come in.’ And, ‘We changed our route or our destination so we could stop.’”
There’s also another kind of fanfare that Pronto Pup enthusiasts can find in Rockaway Beach: the mechanical corn dog.
Like a mechanical bull or a horse on a merry-go-round, the corn dog is equipped with a saddle. Dropping a couple of quarters into a slot starts the ride. The young and the young at heart take a turn at the corn dog.
The Original Pronto Pup boasts an entire cheesy background dedicated to creating Boyington’s creation from so many years ago.
The process of making a puppy is as simple as it was then.
“So we mix the batter every day by hand, everything needs to be on a stick so it stays under the oil in the fryer. … We put sticks in everything. Everything is then dipped by hand. Everything is made to order,” explained Langer, as he carefully demonstrated the process before opening on a Friday in mid-April.
Langer points to two reasons why Pronto Pups have long been a crowd favorite.
“People love roadside attractions and fried food, you know?” she said with a laugh.
Karnis agreed, also with a smile.
“I know this very much: that [customers are] willing to wait in line for one, and when they do get it, a lot of times they get a handful of them, maybe 8, 9, 10… And they bring them in and everyone grabs them by their Pronto Pups, but they definitely get a full look of total satisfaction because it’s state fair time again. And we can get a fresh, hand-dipped, original Pronto Pup just like we have for generations.”
Enjoying Pronto Pups is a tradition that spans both decades and geography, from the Oregon Coast to the Minnesota State Fair and back again.
This story is part of a larger exploration of corn as an ingredient in the Northwest, which is featured in the second season of Overabundant.