Hamburger Diaries: Wienerschnitzel
While growing up you’ve heard about or watched references on television about some kind of restaurant chain, or any kind of business, way over on that other part of the continent. Growing up where the Industrial Midwest meets Dixie, Jack in the Box held that kind of mystique. All those jokes about ordering into a clown and not knowing exactly why Rodney Allen Rippy was famous. It seemed pretty consequential to those people on the other side of the television.
Another idea which similarly existed only in the background of police-drama car chases, was Der Wienerschnitzel. I honestly could not tell you how I first heard about it. I do know it was in my mind before I ever crossed the Mississippi River. Hot dogs were not quick-service fare back in Kentucky. Certainly hot-dog themed restaurants did not exist in any substantial quantity. Among the questions which crossed my hillbilly mind was how does one dress a meager hot dog to make it a worthwhile restaurant proposition? Mere wieners did not get much respect back home, despite our cultural proximity to Chicago. This made the restaurant even more exotic.
Background, context and so on is a part of the Hamburger Diaries which I find appealing and edifying. Naturally, I went to the internet to see what could be known about Wienerschnitzel. What info I can find is all over the place. No one can even agree as to when the “Der” was dropped; it was after 1977 and before 1989. Most missives hit upon the close relationship between Wienerschnitzel’s founder, John Galardi and Glen “Taco” Bell, Jr. When Galardi opened a second taco stand, near one of Bell’s stands, Bell asked him to sell some other product. No one was doing hot dogs. Not an especially inspiring story. Some time in the late 70s, Hamburgers were added to the menu.
That’s it. Wienerschnitzel has been rolling along since 1961. Galardi Group started The (inexplicably named) Original Hamburger Stand in the late 1980s, and acquired Tastee Freeze in 2003. Wienerschnitzel is the exclusive sponsor of the Wiener Nationals, “world championship” Daschund races.
Their television advertising, as presented on You Tube, shows they don’t even know what to do with the awkward and disingenuous name. It’s a restaurant where you can get a hot dog in a world of hamburger restaurants; which isn’t nearly as exciting as they have been lead to believe. At least until the late 70s when Hamburgers were added to the menu. If you hire a bunch of slick guys in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, to make TV commercials and they don’t know what to say about your product something is very seriously wrong.
I never visited the restaurant now known merely as Wienerschnitzel while on the West Coast. It just wasn’t around my morsel of California. A particularly long time ago I stopped by the Wienerschnitzel in San Marcos, Texas drawn in by a billboard on the interstate. I have almost no memory of that visit, save that I was encouraged not to stick around the restaurant for unspecified reasons.
The only Wienerschnitzel in Austin is within the last industrialized area. In a decade this area shall be turned into vacant condominiums, vacant storefronts and empty parking lots. Despite the best efforts of the City large numbers of people remain ably employed. These people have interesting lunch options including Culver’s and several ethnic buffets. This is an excellent area for a chain establishing their presence. Folks who come for lunch live all over the metropolitan area. When you open an additional location at least some of the people in the new neighborhood are familiar with you. Wienerschnitzel has been open and operating since 2003 and this one remains the only store in Austin, although another has opened in Cedar Park in the ever growing Williamson County.
It’s around 11:45 A.M. on a Wednesday.
When you pull up, you find yourself at a pretty generic quick-service restaurant. One could readily believe Wienerschnitzel opened at an abandoned location of Naugles or similar. The outdoor signs, other than the primary logo signs, are all faded. More letters are missing from the letterboard than are present. The windows appear covered with special offers. Even so, everything is orderly and clean. You walk into beige. Along the walls are portraits featuring elements of Wienerschnitzel’s past. These images cleverly avoid evoking feelings of interest, curiosity or nostalgia.
The four-color menu explodes out from above a beige counter fronted with a red-white W-laden checkerboard, the only color in the building not a display. It is just a dreary, unpleasant place. Is this what fast food was like in East Germany?
It’s clean. The cashier is nice and has that sense of urgency. Everything is well stocked up front. Foodservice-sized Heinz ketchup and mustard with pumps are plopped on the condiment stand and fountain. Is it worse that there are raised portions of the condiment stand specifically to hold these? No one, including the clientele, wants to be there. I don’t recall napkins either offered or available.
Wienerschnitzel serves Pepsi products. Curiously, they also have Dr Pepper which in our area is distributed by Coca-Cola. The only non-HFCS sweetened carbonated beverage is Diet Pepsi. Lipton raspberry iced tea on the fountain. No shakes, despite Tastee Freeze branded soft-serve ice cream deserts on the menu.
Dogs are on the left. Burgers on the right. Combos are between. More than a little surprised that the standard Burger is not available in a combo, I order a No. 5 chili-cheese dog with chili-cheese burger and fries. I am issued a number but it is served before I have dispensed my Diet Pepsi.
When you go for a Burger, expectations are not especially high. The likelihood of an exotic or transcendent experience is extremely low. Yet when presented with the very victuals I ordered, I could not help but feel cheated and disappointed. Despite upgrading my combo I have a small sack of shoestring fries which don’t have enough color. The sandwiches are tiny.
The sandwiches are also poorly dressed. Aside from the chili and “cheese”, more of a dull yellow syrup, they have no dressing of any kind. The dog is overwhelmed by its inconsequential bun. The patty is completely hidden within a four-inch sesame seed bun. It’s really tiny, possibly under two ounces. This isn’t the worst part.
Way back you could get prepared patties at the grocery store. That is, you could get Hamburger patties made with beef, but just down the way you could get something allegedly resembling Hamburger patties for about half the price. To this day I don’t know what was actually in there. Clearly it wasn’t toxic. This is what I was served in lieu of a proper Hamburger patty made of discernable animal meat.
I sat down, assessed the situation, and decided to eat anyway. Fortunately the portions are very small. The chili is a paste and not especially pleasant. You know you are having a distinctive experience when you just want to choke it down so you can get back to fighting traffic in ninety-five degree heat. It isn’t so much fulfilling or satisfying. Rather it simply removes your appetite.
This abismal experience cost $7 and change. I was in the midst of other errands and managed to lose the receipt. Considering the portions, it was overpriced even if it were pretty good. I ate. I got out of there. I have no fondness or affinity for Wienerschnitzel. They don’t know why they exist. They don’t even have a reason to exist. If the basic dog isn’t well executed, and the Burgers are substantially worse than what was served in my high school cafeteria, how on earth do you continue operating and why?