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John Galardi dies: Wienerschnitzel maverick 'had to be wealthy'

April 15, 2013|By Amy Hubbard

John Galardi has died, placing a period on one of the fast-food industry's greatest rags-to-riches stories. The Wienerschnitzel founder once said, simply: "I had to be wealthy."

At age 19, the Midwestern boy of humble origins had never eaten out or taken a vacation. At 25, he was a millionaire. 

In a 2012 article, the Los Angeles Times' Tiffany Hsu outlined Galardi's rise in the industry, writing: "John Galardi knows his own mind and isn't afraid of hard work."

Galardi himself said: "I realized really young that what I wanted in life was to do what I want in the way that I want. That meant that I had to be wealthy." Galardi died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at age 75.

Galardi's was an empire built on chili dogs served from drive-through A-frames.

Times Food Editor Russ Parsons recalled the formula for success, which he learned working at a Der Wienerschnitzel the summer before his freshman year in college:

"At that time, drive-throughs were something of a novelty, at least in Albuquerque, so at first there was a kind of thrill to the job. Cars would pull up to a window on one side of the little cinder-block building and give orders. Then they'd pull around to the other side and pick them up. Theoretically, anyway, the hot dog would be cooked and the garnishes would be applied in the time it took the driver to negotiate the turn."

Galardi was a small-town Missouri boy, the son of an appliance repairman and a Sears employee. He manned a tractor and worked as a soda jerk before graduating from high school. There were 42 people in his class.

He then briefly tried to fulfill his dream of being a pro basketball player. He attended Southwest Baptist University on a basketball scholarship for 18 months before dropping out. Soon after, he moved with his parents and two brothers to California.

It took three days for all to be employed. Galardi methodically asked every shop owner on Pasadena's main drag for a job. "You want to work, you can find work," he said.

Galardi worked at Taco Tia. Notably, the restaurant was owned by Glen Bell Jr., who turned Taco Tia into ... Taco Bell.  Bell gave Galardi advice on succeeding in Southern California's booming fast-food industry. In 1961, Galardi launched Der Wienerschnitzel.

Fifty-two years later, Wienerschnitzel (the "Der" was dropped in 1977) 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.

Der Wienerschnitzel wasn't so kind to Parsons.  He was fired after five days. 

"Someone, it seems, had noticed me going across the street -- in my full DW uniform -- to eat lunch at Arby's," he said.

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