What Goes Into a Wienerschnitzel Hot Dog?
Hot dogs get a bad rap as “mystery meat.” To counter this perception, Wienerschnitzel is planning to roll out a marketing campaign resembling food industry association PR efforts like “Pork, the other white meat” and “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” “We want to educate consumers that the quality is generally superior to what you get in a hamburger, and that ours are cooked over real maple and hickory wood chips,” says CEO and Vistage member Cindy Culpepper.
The back-to-basics campaign makes sense from Culpepper, who has reverently carried on the Los Angeles-based fast food company’s traditions since becoming CEO six years ago, after her ex-husband and Wienerschnitzel founder John Galardi passed. She has not just preserved the company’s signature dog, but also its iconic A-frame drive-throughs and kitschy mascot, an anthropomorphic hot dog named The Delicious One. She recently completed a book documenting Galardi’s life and the history of the franchise, which she gives away to staff and guests.
- Region: Orange County, CA
- Industry: Restaurants
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A philanthropic mission
Though Culpepper has by and large preserved Wienerschnitzel’s identity as a restaurant — 120 million hot dogs sold each year don’t lie — her vision for the company as a whole is a decided departure from Galardi’s. In fact, the main reason she became CEO was because she saw the need for change, and saw herself as the best one to do it. “I inherited an organization that had grown somewhat stagnant over the past 20 years and could be doing a lot more with its considerable resources,” she says.
One of her first actions as CEO was to take her leadership team on a retreat to discuss how Wienerschnitzel’s mission of serving high-quality, affordable food could be married to her lifelong passion for philanthropy. After two days of collaboration, they’d created their new mission statement: “Serving food to serve others.”
“I didn’t just want us to donate some money, but to direct a considerable portion of our profits back into the community. I took this mission seriously, to the point that I created a dedicated philanthropy department,” she explains. “This was a radical departure for a company that had never made community service a major part of its culture.”
The company selected several worthy causes, with a focus on children. “We’ve recently done a lot of work with a nonprofit called Roc Solid, which builds playgrounds for young cancer patients. It’s truly remarkable to see a child start the day struggling, then come alive when they return home to a surprise playground.”
An unlikely leader
Culpepper’s bold new direction for Wienerschnitzel came as a surprise to most in the company, who had previously known her as the unassuming silent partner to Galardi’s hot dog empire. After she inherited voting stock, most had assumed she’d cede leadership to the current president. Her brashness was perhaps less of a surprise to those who knew the girl who ran away from an abusive home as a teen and started two businesses, or the leather-clad racecar driver, or the novice pilot who once nearly crashed into Donner Summit on her first cross-country solo flight.
Culpepper affirms that her life experiences helped prepare her to take on the responsibilities of an executive. “If you’re in a car and you’re fearful, well, now you aren’t concentrating on what you need to do, so you are going to crash. When I was caught in a storm over Donner, if I had panicked, I wouldn’t be here today. In business and in life, you have to look ahead, take control and think it through.”
Though she has come late to executive leadership, she’s demonstrated strong instincts and a thorough knowledge of current business trends. These qualities have helped her weave the ethos of “serving food to serve others” through every facet of her organization.
This is manifest in Wienerschnitzel’s clever social media marketing strategy, which leverages sponsorships of extreme sports athletes — taking a cue from Culpepper’s own passion for risk-taking. The company has collaborated with their athletes on fundraising events, which have included a restaurant takeover by a motocross team and a partnership with Skate for Change in the Hotdogs for Homelessness tour — events simultaneously furthering the company mission and appealing to a younger demographic.
Culpepper has also focused the company’s mission inward, to its more immediate community of franchisees and employees. She has earned a sterling reputation with franchisees for treating them as partners rather than income flows. “If I see that an owner is doing everything we ask of them in terms of maintaining quality,” she says, “but struggling for reasons outside their control, we’ll step in with financial assistance to make sure they have the resources to get through the hardship.”
For employees and their families, Culpepper worked with the California Restaurant Association Foundation to start a scholarship program. “Fast service work is incredibly hard, which I learned firsthand filming an episode of ‘Undercover Boss,’ “ she says. “It’s important we don’t just provide employment, but a path for our workers to get ahead. We had hired a young man who was homeless; he was able to attend college with a Wienerschnitzel scholarship.”
Culpepper’s holistic approach to “serving food to serve others” has not just advanced her philanthropic vision, but has made Wienerschnitzel stronger than ever. Many of the company’s 320 locations have seen record sales under her leadership, and there are plans to open new franchises across the Southwest. Her genius has been the insight that the decidedly un-trendy hot dog can be a trendsetter, offering Americans a food that is refreshingly uncomplicated, not just because it’s familiar, but because the company behind it has integrity. As Culpepper puts it, “Hot dogs are an American tradition. I want Americans to feel good about eating them.”