CHICAGO — SINCE quitting college and launching Murphy's Red Hots with his newlywed wife in 1987, Bill Murphy has made a good living by serving succulent hot dogs at a bargain price.
So it came as a surprise last month when two Japanese executives showed up at Mr. Murphy's small North Side eatery in search of neither his ''Screamin' To Be Eaten Polish Sausage'' nor his ''Footlong Red Hot.'' They came for Murphy himself.
Manabe Company, the owner of 400 coffeehouses in Japan, plans to catapult Murphy to commercial stardom as the Col. Sanders of a planned natioanwide chain of hot dog restaurants in Japan.
Murphy, always eager to exalt the humble wiener has agreed to lend his name and face for the pilot restaurant in Hiroshima.
''It'll be fun,''' says Murphy, as a score of ''red hots'' sizzle and spit on the grill behind him. ''But believe me, ''I can't understand it.''
The unfolding tale of Murphy Dog restaurant in Hiroshima is more than a story of how a jovial, hard-working small businessman gets a shot at restaurant stardom. It's a lesson in the peculiarity of Japanese marketing and the quirky appeal in Japan of things foreign.
Next month, Manabe is sending Murphy to Japan for a high-profile sightseeing tour and the opening of the first Murphy Dog.
''We basically just want Murphy's image,'' says Don Ferris, general manager of the Los Angeles office of Yonekyu Company, Japan's eighth largest meat processor. Yonekyu acted as Manabe's talent agent in its quest for America's hot dog cuisinier.
In his own North Side orbit, Murphy is known to connoisseurs of the Chicago hot dog -- that Midwest paragon of tubed all-beef meat laid on a steamy poppy seed bun and piled under a harvest of chopped vegetables and a zesty load of relish, mustard, and celery salt.
Ironically, the Japanese won't be serving Murphy's Chicago franks. The Manabe restaurants will serve Japanese-made pork hot dogs trimmed for the fastidious local palate. The reason: A chain selling US franks, called Chicago Dog, bombed in Tokyo a few years ago.
Instead, the Japanese want Murphy to legitimize their restaurant by imbuing ''Murphy Dog'' with his expertise and character. They apparently believe that Murphy offers a special aura of skill, devotion, and fulfillment akin to Japan's ideal master craftsman.
In their homogeneous society, Japanese marketers often try to pique sales by exploiting a popular fascination with foreign people and things. Colonel Sanders, Famous Amos, and a bevy of other Americans have been enlisted to hawk goods ranging from blue jeans to soft drinks.
Manabe wants ''Murphy for his face, his personality, and his story,'' says Michael Levine, a manager at the Vienna Sausage Manufacturing Company in Chicago. Vienna arranged a tour last month of Murphy's Red Hots and five other leading Chicago hot dog establishments for the Manabe executives.
The Japanese selected Murphy over other wiener chefs in part because of his devotion. In order to open the restaurant he dropped out of the University of Illinois after two years studying architecture. He and his wife, Letty, spent their honeymoon launching the five-table eatery. They live above the kitchen.
Murphy works every day from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. His wife prepares chili, chicken noodle soup, and other homemade soups. The restaurant walls are trimmed Kelly green and decorated with homemade signs featuring cartoon sketches of hot dog chefs and their speciality.
''The restaurant has a real warmth to it, it's homey, it's neighborhoody, it's personal, every sense is touched -- you smell, you hear it, you see it, and that really prepares you to taste it,'' Mr. Levine says.
Murphy clinched the title of supreme hot dog chef by personally serving the Japanese executives and chatting with them through an interpreter for 20 minutes, Mr. Ferris says.
''I try to take good care of my people,'' Murphy says, whipping up a vanilla milkshake.
Murphy has already received a windfall of stateside publicity and inquiries for business tie-ups in Chicago and New York. He is cautiously looking to parlay his flicker of fame into the expansion of Murphy's Red Hots.
Moreover, Murphy has limited the use of his name and image to the Hiroshima eatery. Manabe will have to negotiate their use at successive restaurants, he says.
''If they want to use my mug on the prototype and see if it can sell some sausages over there it's fair enough,'' he says. ''But if the guys want to do more, then I expect we'll have to sit down and talk,'' he says, plunking a ''footlong'' into a steaming bun.