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John Galardi is hot dog chain Wienerschnitzel's top dog

Opening the first Wienerschnitzel hot dog stand in his early 20s and turning it into a fast food empire, John Galardi knows his own mind and isn't afraid of hard work.

September 16, 2012|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Wienerschnitzel founder John Galardi tends to avoid the limelight. “I don’t need to be the hero; I like the process,” he said. “I love the concept of getting better.”
Wienerschnitzel founder John Galardi tends to avoid the limelight. “I… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

The gig: John Galardi is the founder and, through his Irvine firm Galardi Group Inc., owner and operator of Wienerschnitzel, the world's largest hot dog chain.

The business: From a single hot dog stand in Los Angeles' Wilmington neighborhood in 1961, Galardi grew the business quickly, soon serving chili dogs to people driving through the middle of his signature A-frame buildings.

Wienerschnitzel, based in Irvine, now has 350 stores in 10 states and Guam and also serves hamburgers. Galardi Group also has more than a dozen Original Hamburger Stands and several hundred soft-serve Tastee Freez operations.

Youth: Born in Kansas City, Mo., 73 years ago, Galardi grew up as a small-town farm boy "playing basketball, chasing girls and working." He manned a tractor, served as a soda jerk and helped out in a meat market. His father made $90 a week fixing appliances; his mother worked for Sears. By 19, Galardi was married.

There were 42 students in his high school graduating class. He never ate out or took a vacation before age 20. He aspired to be a professional athlete and went to Southwest Baptist University on a basketball scholarship, but 18 months later, he dropped out.

Hustling: He soon moved to California with his parents and two brothers. Within three days, all were employed — Galardi after walking the main street in Pasadena asking every store owner for a job.

"You want to work, you can find work," he said. He enrolled briefly in junior college in Pasadena but soon left to focus on manning the counter at Mexican-style restaurant Taco Tia.

Empire-building: Taco Tia was owned by Glen Bell Jr., who eventually turned the business into Taco Bell.

Bell also counseled Galardi on how to navigate the fast food industry, which was booming in Southern California with the launches of McDonald's, Carl's Jr., Denny's and other chains. Galardi later struck out on his own; his hot dog concept — launched in 1961 — was known as Der Wienerschnitzel until 1977, when the "Der" was dropped.

With the first of the baby boomers turning 16 and crowding into drive-throughs, the chain took off. By age 25, Galardi was a millionaire.

The maverick: "I realized really young that what I wanted in life was to do what I want in the way that I want," he said. "That meant that I had to be wealthy."

To get that way required a contrarian mind-set, which resulted in years of conflict with authority, Galardi said. Although he and many others thought "Der Wienerschnitzel" was "a stupid name," he used it anyway because it was more memorable than "John's Hot Dogs."

"It's not about having thick skin," he said. "When you've been right a lot, you don't listen to anybody."

Pursuing improvement: "I've not done anything in my life that I don't excel at," Galardi said. But that confidence wasn't always on display.

At age 12, he taught himself to play the accordion but refused to perform in recitals. He practiced basketball for eight hours on Saturdays and during school lunch breaks but was less enthusiastic about games.

"I don't need to be the hero; I like the process," he said. "I love the concept of getting better."

In the early days of Wienerschnitzel, Galardi spent 10 hours a day, six days a week for six years developing the brand. "It was scary; you literally don't know what you're doing," he said. "But you take the beatings and you grow."

Self-reliance: In his mid-20s and feeling invincible, Galardi expanded Wienerschnitzel too quickly and borrowed too much money, then ran up against a cooldown in the fast-food industry. He ended up millions of dollars in debt and facing a spate of lawsuits related to the company's growth.

"I followed the advice of Wall Street," he said. "I stopped making decisions and let other people do it. And I had to clean up the mess."

He spent five years refreshing the chain and clearing his legal troubles. Until the most recent recession, Wienerschnitzel enjoyed 26 years of same-store sales increases. The privately owned company is now back in "positive territory," Galardi said.

Spotlight shy: Wienerschnitzel's image has several recognizable elements, but Galardi is not one of them. He feels uncomfortable appearing in commercials. He doesn't hobnob with celebrities. He doesn't consider himself a foodie.

"Customers don't need to know the guy who owns or runs the company," he said. "Any time you individualize in a corporate game, you can't grow bigger than yourself."

Personal: Galardi has four children, ages 23 to 53. He is newly married to his third wife. They live in Newport Beach.

Lion in winter: In the past, Galardi was a constant skier, tennis player and scuba diver. He would regularly bike 50 miles. He even took a year off in the 1970s to ski in Aspen, Colo.

But an older Galardi now passes time working on investment deals and traveling wherever his wife desires. He said he's "not ready for the grave" and misses the excitement of building a project from scratch.

"At my age, you don't need to get richer," he said. "But guys like me who climb the mountain always have trouble with the aftermath. The best thing in life is to have a passion."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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