Wienerschnitzel is famous for selling hot dogs, but its mission is slightly different, according to its new leader, J.R. Galardi.
“We live and die by our chili,” Galardi said. “We say we’re a hot dog brand, but in reality we’re a chili concept that sells platforms to put chili on. Our No. 1 items, if you set corn dogs aside, are chili dogs, chili cheese dogs, chili cheese fries, chili burgers, things like that. All our main sellers have chili on them.”
Galardi became the chief executive officer of Wienerschnitzel’s parent company, the Irvine-based Galardi Group, on Feb. 1, but in a way he was born into it. Wienerschitzel was founded by his father, John Galardi, in 1961. The company was taken over by his mother, Cindy Galardi Culpepper, after his father died in 2013.
“In the past two years, she made a major step back,” her son said in a phone interview.
J.R. Galardi, 33, has been the company’s president since 2017. He said the new title doesn’t change much for him, but it could make it easier for him to put a more youthful face on Wienerschnitzel, a nearly 61-year-old brand.
“When I came on board we had no social media. We were running these heritage-type ads triggering the nostalgia of the brand geared toward the older demographic. The median age of our customer base at the time was between 48 and 50 years old.
“So while that’s great — those are people who have been loyal to the brand for decades — there was a lot of ‘We’re paying the bills and keeping the brand going.’ We needed to focus on a younger demographic.”
Through geo-targeted advertising, social media and email blasts, he said he has been able to lower the median age of the customer by five or six years.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is. We average over 3 million customers a month, so to skew those customers by multiple years is to my mind quite an accomplishment.”
What Wienerschnitzel doesn’t have is a loyalty app. Galardi said it discontinued it because it wasn’t well designed and confused crew members. Instead Wienerschnitzel’s website offers online ordering and delivery.
Delivery has becoming more important to the brand since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, as has drive-thru service.
Drive-thrus in a way take the chain back to its roots, when its restaurants were A-frame buildings without dining rooms. Customers actually drove through the middle of the buildings to reach a pickup window.
“We always knew our business was reliant on drive-thru, but holy cow! Talk about being the right business model at the right time. It definitely went full-circle,” said Galardi. “We’re definitely focused on our drive-thru speed and performance and clarity of the speaker box.”
Wienerschnitzel frachises nearly 350 restaurants in 10 states, and the Galardi Group is also the parent company of two other brands, Tastee Freez and Hamburger Stand.
Galardi would like to grow all three brands internationally, and said the world has an appetite for American-sounding products. He said he is talks with 17 countries about expansion.
The name Wienerschnitzel, however, could create challenges overseas. Wiener schnitzel is an Austrian dish, a breaded veal cutlet, and has nothing to do with hot dogs. The elder Galardi adopted it as a gimmick, according to a biography, “A Drive-Thru Life.”
Galardi said he is open to a name change abroad.
“That’s definitely a talking point. If we were to open up in Germany or Austria, there would probably be a lot of confusion. We’re flexible when it comes to the name itself, especially in those regions. But we’re not flexible on the logo.
“As long as the W logo, or the Hamburger Stand logo is consistent, that’s what gets you the brand recognition. We’ll work with language barriers.”
Wienerschnitzel’s big W was created by graphic designer Saul Bass in 1978. Bass is something of a Hollywood legend for the opening credits he created for movies like “Psycho.”
“We updated it a little,” Galardi said of Bass’ work for Wienerschnitzel. “But the overall logo and design, that’s something we’ll definitely keep.”
He said the last two years the challenges of running a business in the midst of a pandemic have taken precedence over menu innovation. But a few weeks ago, Wienerschnitzel introduced veggie dogs with plant-based wieners, and he said they are developing a following through geo-targeted ads with vegetarian influencers.
Wienerschnitzel’s veggie dogs have a different customer base than flexitarians who are trying to find plant-based products that closely imitate meat.
“We found our core demographic is the vegetarian community. And they don’t want something that looks like meat.”
In 2019, Wienerschnitzel found a new platform for its chili sauce when it began selling it in $5 cans in-store.
According to Galardi, sales are steady and pick up around the holiday season.
“People love using our chili as gifts and stocking stuffers.”
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