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An illustration shows a hot dog stand worker working a stand in real life and on his tablet Illustration: Kyle Ellingson for Polygon

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A talking hot dog prepared me for life in the kitchen

When edutainment succeeds at educating

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On Mondays, I ordered meat.

Chicken sells consistently, so we’ll keep that at 20 pounds. Beef’s been slow; 10 will do. I over-ordered wings last week and we’ve got a case in the freezer, so we’ll skip them entirely. Plus, reservations are down and the forecast calls for rain this weekend. Don’t expect much of a rush.

As purchasing manager at a restaurant in Philadelphia, I was tasked with keeping track of inventory, placing our weekly meat and produce orders, and stocking all the other products needed to keep a restaurant running — toilet paper, straws, a new pair of tongs. I hadn’t had any experience in this kind of management, but I’d worked my way up to the job, which fit better with my schedule working full-time in an office, after moonlighting in the kitchen during dinner service.

Each week, I met with our chef, cooks, and servers to ask what sold out early, what tools needed replacing, what dry goods were running low, and all the other questions needed to help maintain the hundreds of tiny systems that keep a restaurant running day in and day out. I’d place orders with our vendors for the big stuff — meats, onions, potatoes, and the like — and make stops at the local Asian grocers and produce warehouses for specialty goods and herbs, trying my best to transcend language barriers to ask for Southeast Asian herbs I could mostly only identify by sight and smell.

It was an unconventional position. Every restaurant is organized a little differently, especially when they’re small like ours was, but my gig wasn’t common in the industry — purchasing and inventory are typically handled by the chef, the owner, or a general manager. In many cases, those are all the same person. I had no authority over staff or service the way a general manager would, and I didn’t cook unless I was filling in on the line. Compared to most in it, I was only living a small slice of restaurant life.

But even though it was my first time professionally managing inventory, I’d trained for it decades earlier in the trailer turned computer lab nestled in the parking lot of my elementary school. In between lessons on how to put together a PowerPoint, my 10-year-old self studied the art of restaurant management from a most trusted tutor, an anthropomorphic hot dog who guided his young apprentice through the inner workings of a hot dog stand.

Released in 1996 by Sunburst Communications, Hot Dog Stand: The Works was one of the publisher’s many edutainment games designed to reinforce the fundamentals: typing, phonics, basic math, and the Sisyphean struggle of managing a profitable restaurant. Most of these games weren’t deep, a series of flash cards overlaid with a veneer of entertainment and the thinnest of mechanics. Hot Dog Stand was no different, but, as with the produce available at a market on any given day, you made do with what you could find.

At the start of the game, you received a brief welcome from a talking hot dog with a penchant for puns before being introduced to the tools necessary to help you run your hot dog stand: a to-do list and calendar, a TV for weather reports, inventory charts, and so on. The game’s world was unclear — like the murky politics behind the coexistence of Disney’s Pluto and Goofy, you sold hot dogs while under the tutelage of a sentient one — but the mechanics were simple. Check the weather report to anticipate crowd size; purchase ingredients based on what each of your three suppliers is charging that week; set your menu prices; and open for business.

From there, it was up to the fates. The details of whatever rudimentary algorithm determined your success were an enigma to my school-aged self, who thought charging $100 for a hot dog was the wisest of business decisions.

“If you manage your office well, sales will sizzle when you open this stand, and your profits for this season will be tasty,” my hot dog tutor told me each time I visited the stand. My sales did not sizzle; my profits, tasteless. Without fail, my sales reports fell short of the goal, and my hot dog stand went bust.

Despite the certainty of failure, I snuck in a new round of Hot Dog Stand whenever I could. There was clarity and simplicity in the mission. People wanted to buy hot dogs; my talking hot dog boss wanted to sell people hot dogs; and I could be the connection that made both parties happy. In the real world, I was driven by the same motivations. I didn’t have the judgment, sense, or culinary imagination to be a chef, and my front-of-house demeanor needed refining. But a restaurant can’t serve food if there’s no food to cook, and I found my place in the industry with overloaded shopping carts and all-hours texts tracking down fresh cases of banana leaves.

And so, through my time as a purchasing manager (in the cruelest echo of Hot Dog Stand, our restaurant closed at the outset of the pandemic), I returned once more to the loop I experienced again and again as a child: Check the inventory, keep the restaurant stocked, and hope all of the conditions outside your control — the weather, the weekend’s concert lineup, how the Phillies are doing — make your decisions that week the correct ones. Though I now knew better than to suggest hundred-dollar hot dogs, it turned out that predicting appetites in a real restaurant proved just as difficult as in my virtual one. But each week, like starting a new stand in computer class, was another chance to get it right.

More than a mere way to fill up class between Excel lessons, the edutainment games we chose in the computer lab pointed to fundamental interests that might not have fully emerged until years later. A budding artist doodled in Microsoft Paint; a future globetrotter traveled the world in the Carmen Sandiego series. And my young self, with the soul of a shopper, ordered buns in Hot Dog Stand, never expecting to relive its rhythms so many years later.

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