Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Wienerschnitzel Founder, John Galardi
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John Galardi, founder of Galardi Group, parent company of Wienerschnitzel, the Original Hamburger Stand and Tastee Freez, passed away of pancreatic cancer on April 13, 2013. He was 75.
John opened the first Wienerschnitzel in 1961 at the age of 23. Over the past 52 years, Galardi has guided Wienerschnitzel from a single location to the world's largest hot dog chain, operating 350 locations and selling more than 120 million hot dogs annually. The company recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Growing up in Kansas City, MO, this small-town farm boy manned a tractor, served as a soda jerk and helped out at a local meat market. He was a man of humble beginnings, never going on a vacation before age 20. Aspiring to be a professional athlete, John went to Southwest Baptist University on a basketball scholarship, but left school to pursue a different direction, although not knowing what that was at the time. At 19, he moved to California with his parents and brother. Within three days, John landed his first job as a SoCal resident working for Glen Bell Jr. at his Taco Tia restaurant (later to become Taco Bell) in Pasadena, Calif.
After gaining a few years of quick service restaurant experience, John's entrepreneurial spirit took hold. While chicken, tacos and hamburgers were in fierce competition, John, knowing that few foods are more loved than the great American hot dog, carved out his own niche when he opened the first "Der Wienerschnitzel" in 1961 in Wilmington, Calif.
In the early days of Wienerschnitzel, Galardi worked tirelessly developing the brand. He was in the kitchen, behind the counter, chatting with guests and even going door-to-door to grow awareness. He tried just about everything to get people in his restaurant, including raffling off a color TV and constantly grilling onions so the smell would entice people to come in from the street. In 1962, Galardi was one of the first adopters of the drive-thru system, which he built right through the middle of his iconic A-frame restaurant. The drive-thru, which was initially implemented as a solution for parking lot loitering, quickly became 70% of his business at the time. Along with a bargain hot dog, John was also best known for his world-famous, secret-recipe chili.
"He was a man of great integrity and possessed strong values that he incorporated in everything he did both personally and in business," said Cindy Galardi Culpepper, John's ex-wife who now serves as chairperson of Galardi Group, Inc. "John often said that he never worked a day in his life, because if you're doing what you love, it isn't work."
With the concept gaining in popularity, Galardi was eager to expand and developed a franchise model to grow the brand. In the process, he built a team of talented professionals who were all dedicated to nurturing Galardi's vision and contributing to the company's success.
Paul Hironimus befriended John in 1959 when they played on a recreational basketball league together. It wasn't long before Paul was part of John's growing business and to this day operates multiple Wienerschnitzel units in Southern California. "He did so much for our family and was the kind of employer everyone should be so lucky to have," said Paul.
A focused businessman, John expanded Galardi Group into a multi-branded company with the launch of the Original Hamburger Stand concept in 1983, the acquisition of the popular soft-serve brand Tastee Freez in 2003, and the new fast-casual Mexican concept, Two Madres, scheduled to launch in summer 2013. The consummate entrepreneur, John dabbled in everything from bakeries and Japanese restaurants, to photo developing and physical therapy facilities.
"John made life exciting for us," said Bob Trujillo, John Galardi's longtime business partner, friend and Wienerschnitzel company president until 1980. "He was a man of remarkably keen foresight and, most importantly, he was a true friend to my family."
John's youngest daughter, Skylar, recalled memories from attending company conferences as a child, "I was always in awe to see him being treated like a king. To me, he was just 'my dad' but it made me proud to see how important he was to so many people."
As the Galardi Group brands grew, John continued to build a leadership team he could trust. He valued people that worked hard and it was individuals of this mentality that he chose to lead his company in the right direction. In 1993, while John continued to serve as chairman of Galardi Group, he stepped away from the day-to-day management and promoted Dennis Tase to president & COO, a position Tase still holds today.
"John was a true pioneer in the restaurant industry and his entrepreneurial spirit was the cornerstone of the company's success," said Dennis Tase. "Since it all began in 1961, he has touched countless lives through his generosity as a business leader, opening doors and presenting opportunities for us all to build his vision into the successful company it is today."
While building his fast food empire, the one constant was that John valued his family and friends above all else. "Despite how busy he was, he always made it a point to be at our events, like horse shows and music recitals," said John's daughter Teresa Hinkel. "He made time for what was important to his kids."
An active adventurist, he loved to ski in both water and snow, and many family vacations revolved around this favorite hobby. Another one of John's earliest passions was basketball. Whether he was playing on a rec team or sitting courtside cheering on the Los Angeles Lakers in the 70s, John loved everything basketball. His son JR recalled, "My dad beat me and my roommates at a game of 'Horse' about a year ago. We were all going for crazy shots and missing, while my dad kept it simple and wiped the floor with us."
Phil Pisciotta knew John all his life. They were cousins and close childhood friends, growing up together and seeing each other through many of life's trials and triumphs. When asked about what he admired most about John, Phil said, "He showed everyone respect. It didn't matter who you were or where you worked, John always gave anyone he was talking to his full attention."
John's four children recall their father's quick wit, humor and life lessons. He would always say, "The bigger the brochure, the weaker the deal," which is testament to John's straight-to-the-point business style. One of his favorite one-liners was, "Take a good look, this is the fattest you're ever going to see me," as he enjoyed a big bowl of pasta or a few donuts, his favorite sweet.
"People loved to be around him. He had a kind heart, was a great listener and you just knew that he genuinely cared," said John's eldest daughter Karen Galardi.
In founding Wienerschnitzel, John built a brand representative of a time when life was simpler, a brand that holds a special place in the hearts of so many families across America. He will be deeply missed but his legacy will forever live on.
John's wife, Judane, shared, "John was the love of my life, my dream come true."
John Galardi is survived by his wife, Judane, four children, a grandson, and an extended family of countless people who he's affected throughout his life.
A "Celebration of Life" service to honor John Galardi will be held on Friday, May 3, at 11:00 a.m. at Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif. In lieu of flowers, the Galardi family is requesting that donations be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/johngalardi
About the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is the national organization creating hope in a comprehensive way through research, patient support, community outreach and advocacy for a cure. The organization is leading the way to increase the survival rate for people diagnosed with this devastating disease through a bold initiative - The Vision of Progress: Double the Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate by 2020. To learn more about the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, visit www.pancan.org.
Published in www.denverpost.com on Apr. 30, 2013