Driving down Pacific Coast Highway, this small, yet vibrant red and yellow building may not catch your eye, and if it does you may just write it off as one of the many Wienerschnitzel locations scattered across California, but this is in fact the first Wienerschnitzel! Unlike a similar hot dog counterpart (coughHotDogOnAStickcough), Wienerschnitzel has valued their first location, and it is even a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Years before Wienerschnitzel founder John Galardi even heard of the word “Wienerschnitzel” he started working at Glenn Bell’s Taco Tia, the predecessor to Taco Bell. Here Galardi learned the ropes of fast food, eventually owning the Long Beach Taco Tia location. A few years later Bell purchased land in Wilmington, near the Port of Long Beach. Originally Bell purchased the property to help his father-in-law open a fast food restaurant, but when that fell through he offered it to Galardi to build on. Galardi settled on a hot dog restaurant, but struggled with a name. During a dinner at Bell’s home, Glenn’s wife, Martha, shared “I was looking through a cookbook today and saw a recipe for Wiener schnitzel. How about that? It’s got wiener in it, which is another work for frankfurter.” Not everyone liked the idea, in fact someone replied with “Wiener schnitzel is a breaded veal cutlet, and who would even know how to pronounce it? I can’t imagine anyone asking ‘Where’s the nearest Wiener schnitzel?'” Remembering a marketing class he took, Galardi recalled that names that are unfamiliar stand out, and people want to learn more, so he settled on Martha’s suggestion, but added “Der” in front, despite it being grammatically incorrect within the German language.
Hot dogs were simple, but Galardi wanted his hot dogs to have a little something extra and decided to do chili dogs. With Bell’s permission, Galardi spent one evening adapting a Taco Tia chili recipe until it was perfect. The chili has become something that the company stands by, with the son of Galardi, and current president and CEO, going as far as to say “We live and die by our chili…We say we’re a hot dog brand, but in reality we’re a chili concept that sells platforms to put chili on.”
With what type of food and a name decided upon, Galardi needed money, and turned to his parents for a loan, who graciously got a loan from the bank to then loan to their son. Now it was time to build. Galardi had learned a lot at Taco Tia, which like most fast food locations, was an open-air walk-up. Galardi had gleaned that many teenagers, with their new found freedom in cars, could be a rowdy and destructive group. His solution was to have a drive-thru, which was still a relatively new idea, but it worked on keeping destruction from the younger crowd to a minimum.
Opening in July 3, 1961, the first Der Wienerschnitzel, a 600 square foot walk-up and drive-thru, took only three months to build, and was not yet in the iconic A-frame you may be familiar with it. Despite barely anyone showing up on the first day of business, the restaurant took off and after a couple of months it was profitable. Atop the roof featured a large sign reading “Der Wienerschnitzel” in gothic, German-esque font, and a logo of a shield with a “D W” design within it.
When it came time expand, Galardi wanted a unique look for his developing brand, and had Bob McKay, who designed the now popular Taco Bell adobe style restaurants, draw something up. Inspired by Alpine chalets, McKay created an A-frame style building with walk-up service in front and drive-thru right in the middle of the building, and soon these little red and yellow chalets were popping up everywhere!
Before the decade was out, Der Wienerschnitzel would franchise, and expand to have 93 locations in various states across the country. The following decade, Galardi was looking for an updated look, and met legendary designer Saul Bass. Bass is one of the greatest graphic designers of the 20th century, creating iconic movie posters, title sequences, and logos. He is responsible for the posters and title sequences for Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy for a Murder, and Vertigo, just to name a few. And even if you don’t know his name, or are an old film buff, you’ve seen his work, as he also designed the logos for AT&T, Bell, the Girl Scouts, Kleenex, United Airlines, and many more. Galardi could only pay $10,000 for a new logo, and Bass agreed, with two conditions, there was to be no revision, once the logo was done, it was done, and “Der” needed to go. What resulted is a bubbly and friendly “W” over an oval which reads “Wienerschnitzel,” almost emulating ketchup or mustard going onto a hot dog.
Eventually Wienerschnitzel went on to create restaurant locations with dining rooms, but they have never forgotten their humble roots along Pacific Coast Highway. While it may not look exactly as it did back in 1961, it’s still there, and that’s more that you can say for most fast food restaurants.
Today, Wienerschnitzel is still family run with J.R. Galardi, son of the founder, as the president and CEO, who brought the company into the 21st century, noting when he took the reins in 2017 there was no social media presence. They have also expanded to become the largest hot dog chain, with over 300 locations in ten states, and their eyes on going international.
Take a bit out of history at the first Wienerschnitzel at 900 W. Pacific Coast Highway in Wilmington.