Chili Cheese Please

juan-venegas-kogt

Orange’s newest entrepreneur is a young Californian who is adjusting to sudden thunderstorms, alligators on the side of the road and people who love mayonnaise on a chili cheese dog.

“I’ve never seen so many people who order mayonnaise on a chili cheese dog,” said Juan Venegas, the owner of the newly-remodeled Wienerschnitzel on MacArthur Drive.

He had already seen a lot of the fast-food chain’s hot dogs. His mother worked at one in California and when he was planning to go to college, he got a part-time job as a janitor at the one where she was working so he could earn money for school.

He recently celebrated his 24th birthday and now owns two of the stores. A few months ago, he was buying the store in Oceanside, California, using money he had saved through years of working. He was then offered a chance to buy the Wienerschnitzel in Orange, Texas, a place he had never heard of before.

“They told me it was near Houston,” he said.

But even in his dreams, he didn’t know how much the people in Orange love the Wienerschnitzel dogs. They’ve been lining up for a block or two in cars or standing at the window. Venegas said the store has been selling 3,000 to 4,000 hot dogs a day since he opened it on May 20.

There’s a reason for that. Chili dog lovers had to go cold turkey without them for six months. The hot dog habit had been a local staple for more than half a century. The store on MacArthur Drive was built in 1965 and is one of the oldest in Texas. The chain began in California in 1961 as Der Wienerschnitzel.

This past November, the franchise corporation and the local owner had differences and the corporation closed the store.  The store has the company’s original A-frame with a red roof style building. Wienerschnitzel did a complete remodeling inside and out. The inside now has enough new stainless steel appliances to make a tech millionaire jealous.

The morning of May 20, the day of the grand reopening, cars were lined up along the side of MacArthur before 10 a.m., the beginning of serving hours.

Venegas said they ran out of hot dogs, soda and cups. The distributor is in Houston, but luckily he  was able to get some supplies from the Beaumont store.

The Orange store now has almost 40 employees. Xavier Epps, who worked at the store before it closed, is now the manager.

Chili cheese dogs are by far the most popular product for the local store. People also like chili cheese buns, served without the grilled wiener. Venegas had not heard of those in California.  He said Wienerschnitzel chili is a secret recipe developed by the founder, John Galardi and Galardi’s mother. “We take great care in making our chili,” he said.

In California, Wienerschnitzel eaters often choose things like relish, onions and tomatoes on their dogs. Here, not much relish is used, but he’s still amazed by the mayonaise people ask for. He keeps extra mayonaise packets to give out in the sacks of dogs. “Back home, we didn’t have many packets,” he said.

Customers still like the Polish sandwich, another Wienerschnitzel tradition. A spilt grilled Polish sausage is put on rye bread with Swiss cheese and a kosher pickle spear in the middle. Sauerkraut can be added. Venegas said the store sells about 100 of the sandwich a day. People also order the Polish sausage on grilled on a bun with chili and cheese. Don’t forget the mayo.

Venegas is right up there with the other employees trying to get customers out quickly, or as quickly as possible. A drive-up order of 150 chili dogs doesn’t get out in three and a half minutes, the timing goal for regular orders. “I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” he said.

Some of the Texas culture and climate have been surprising, including the friendliness of customers. Many tell him how long they have been coming to the store with some who were kids when  it opened now bringing their grandchildren. And on Wednesdays, the staff can expect the lady who drives her dog for a hot dog.

Everyone in town recognizes his Wienerschitzel design on his shirt and they start a conversation, often asking why he didn’t bring hot dogs with him.

One of the confusing things he discovered is the city limits between Pinehurst and Orange. “You have different cities in the same zip code,” he said. The store is in the city of Pinehurst. MacArthur Drive and a couple of feet of right-of-way in the front of the store are in the city of Orange.  And then the city of West Orange is on the opposite side of MacArthur.

The Rainbow Bridge was also a surprise. He said after his first visit to town, he drove back to Houston through Bridge City. He’s traveling along and sees an alligator on the side of the road. Next he sees the bridge. He said he was talking to a friend on his car Bluetooth when he saw the bridge ahead. He gave his ‘good-byes’ to the friend in case he didn’t make it over the bridge.

At least he was driving a big SUV. When he landed at Hobby Airport in Houston, the car rental employees told him he should get a big car to make it through the rain. California had been going through years of drought and he had never been through a Gulf Coast thunderstorm. He soon was glad he got the SUV.

“Fifteen minutes down the road, I got in a storm,” he said. Not only did the storm have a deluge of rain, but it also dropped hail on him. He is intrigued by the thunder and lightning, too, something he doesn’t see in his part of California.

Venegas recalls his mentors at Wienerschnitzel and their encouragement to expand. “I choose responsibility and priorities,” he said.

The Wienerschnitzel company is like a family, he said, and he is making his employees part of his family. The family is extending, too. The community and his customers have welcomed him with local hospitality.

 

 



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