J.R. Galardi, the new chief executive of Irvine-based Wienerschnitzel, counts 20 years of experience at the famed family-owned hot dog restaurant chain.
It’s a notable achievement for a 33-year-old.
Galardi’s hot dog career began when he was 13, at a summer job as a janitor at the Wienerschnitzel location off Jamboree Road, near the Irvine and Newport Beach city lines. The next two decades saw him move through the ranks, first at the local restaurant and later at corporate headquarters.
The Newport Beach restaurant is one of nearly 350 locations for the chain, which closed out 2021 with sales of about $385 million, up 28% from 2020 levels.
2020 and 2021 were the two best-performing years on record for Wienerschnitzel, the company reports.
The company did its share of pivoting during the pandemic.
“Nobody had been through it. Nobody knew what to expect. Now we have a baseline on how to adapt,” Galardi said.
Galardi credits the company’s established drive-thru model, and the restaurant’s low food cost, as factors in its recent success.
Labor and supply shortages continue to be challenges, he said.
Galardi thinks there’s plenty more room for growth at Wienerschnitzel’s parent company, Galardi Group Inc., which includes the Hamburger Stand and Tastee Freez lines the company bought in 2003.
The company is gearing up to boost its franchising efforts both in the U.S. and internationally.
The goal is to be “globally consistent and culturally relevant,” he tells the Business Journal.
Wienerschnitzel, founded by the late John Galardi—J.R.’s father—in 1961, last year ranked No. 9 among the largest restaurant chains based in Orange County by revenue, according to Business Journal research.
The CEO appointment comes after a four-year stint as president for the younger Galardi.
During that time, same-store sales increased 42% and digital sales grew almost 400%, according to the company.
Last year saw the firm’s best-ever year, in terms of year-over-year revenue gains, officials said.
After the initial teenage janitorial position, Galardi was eventually trained in every role inside the store, including bagging orders, manning the register, and using the grill.
Working the drive-thru was his favorite spot, as he interacted with the customers both in and out of the restaurant, he says.
However, Galardi hadn’t seen himself running the family business as a career and began his own entertainment company with a colleague working as a music manager.
The University of Colorado music business major previously spent time at a marketing company, going through sample catalogues from record labels to be picked for company commercials.
Once his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Galardi had to make an important choice.
“No one else was interested, and I didn’t want my father’s legacy to be broken up,” he said.
After the founder’s death in 2013 at age 75, his ex-wife Cindy Galardi Culpepper took over; the former couple had divorced in 2009.
She would later make headlines for a 2016 role in TV show “Undercover Boss.”
Galardi returned to the corporate office, turning his entertainment-related business over to his associate.
He worked his way up the corporate ladder, from marketing to administration eventually becoming executive VP and later president.
Galardi Culpepper is maintaining her role as executive chairwoman.
“He’s extremely forward-thinking when it comes to strategizing for what’s next, but also has the self-assurance and determination to see his ideas through to the end,” she said of the new CEO.
The company currently has more than 50 locations in development, including a 20-unit deal in Arkansas. Wienerschnitzel is 100% franchise-led and now operates in 10 states, primarily in the Western U.S., and is currently targeting the Midwest.
The total investment necessary to begin operation of a new Wienerschnitzel restaurant can range between $303,600 to $1.45 million, according to the company.
Galardi is aiming for Wienerschnitzel to enter the international market by the end of this year. He hired Werner Glass as the new director of international sales to lead the division he created last year.
Galardi reports there is much interest from the global marketplace and says the company is currently in negotiations with franchise areas in the Middle East and South America. Japan is also an option, he said.
He said he plans to pay attention to the flavor profiles of each region and apply them to the menu according to the local marketplace. According to his research, there are multiple ways the Wienerschnitzel hot dog could be brought abroad.
“We’re not there to force people to eat the food. Every area has a different cultural profile. I want to adapt to that.”