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It's a hot diggity dog anniversary
How do six people work together in a 200-square-foot kitchen? In the case of these Wienerschnitzel employees, it's like performers in a well-choreographed dance. But what can you expect after 30 years of working together?
The six, sometimes up to eight, Yumans move around each other with smooth steps, filling drink orders, grilling hamburgers and making their famous chili dogs.
They do all this in a tiny kitchen under a lively yellow and red A-frame building, one of only three original structures left in Arizona, located at 1775 4th Ave. The A-frame is split into two sections by the drive-through, with the kitchen on one side and the storage area in the other.
The two restaurants in Yuma are celebrating the chain's 50th anniversary this year, and Yuma's original Wienerschnitzel is marking 45 years, one of the first franchises outside of California.
The chain's founder, John Galardi, worked with Glen Bell in the late 1950s when Bell owned a few Taco Tio restaurants, later renamed Taco Bell. Bell mentored Galardi and encouraged him to open his own restaurant.
Galardi decided to open a hot dog stand and wanted a memorable name. His wife found the name “Der Wienerschnitzel” in a cookbook. They adopted the name and eventually dropped the “Der.”
The chain began with a single hot dog stand in 1961 on Pacific Coast Highway in Wilmington, Calif. Yuma's franchise opened in 1966 and still operates at its original 4th Avenue location. Yuma's second location, owned by Ali Saiyed, opened in 1991.
Current owner Joe Putzu bought the 4th Avenue franchise in 1991, but he grew up at the restaurant. His family worked at the gas station across the street and he regularly hopped over for food.
Putzu, 45, started working after school at the restaurant when he was 17 years old. He got along well with fellow employees and enjoyed meeting customers.
He climbed the ladder, first to shift manager, night manager and then-store manager. He finally bought the franchise when Don Hulse retired in 1991.
“I always had a lot of respect for the company and the store,” Putzu said.
In his nearly 30 years of association with the chain, he's witnessed a lot of menu changes, but he says the constants have been the great customers and quality workers.
He's also seen a lot of changes along 4th Avenue, with some businesses closing and new ones opening. And with the city's expansion into other areas, he notes that the roadway is not as busy as it once was.
Two of his longtime workers, Gloria Putzu and Martha Mesa, agree. Joe points out that it's rare for workers to stick around for so long, especially in the fast-food industry. However, Putzu and Mesa have been working alongside him for about three decades.
Gloria, assistant manager, started working at Wienerschnitzel in 1980 as a Yuma High School junior for on-the-job training credit.
“It was an excellent first job.”
She and Joe eventually started dating, got married, had three kids and divorced. “But we're still best friends,” Gloria, 47, quipped.
The restaurant became a family business, and she enjoys supporting Joe and the team.
“We have such nice customers and it's a nice atmosphere,” she said.
Mesa, 51, also grew up with the restaurant. Her sister lived down the street and she remembers eating there as a child.
“I would look inside and think I could never work there, it's so little.”
But now she's one of the “dancers” who jump from station to station within the small confines.
Mesa joined the team in 1983. She took time off when she had her two children and she usually takes the summers off to spend time with her kids, but she's always returns.
“Everyone treats me real well. It's not only a team, but a family,” Mesa said.
She praises Joe, noting that “he's there for us. He never says no when we need time off.”
Gloria and Mesa have both witnessed some exciting times at work, including a few trucks that didn't quite clear the roof or made sharp turns around the corner, taking part of the wall.
“We've lost a few bricks,” Martha said, laughing.
Both women are also fans of the food, in particular the chili cheese fries and chili cheese hot dogs.
“People ask us if we get tired of the food. I never, never get tired of the chili. We make our own creations with the chili,” Gloria said.
The chili also happens to be the most popular item on the menu, they said.
Gloria also points out that she eats there every day and still manages to remain trim. “We call it the Chili Dog Diet,” she joked.
Another common question: Can they spell the restaurant's name?
“Sure!” Martha tells them. But her kids have their doubts. “My kids ask, ‘Mom, do you know how to spell it?' They think I can't spell such a big word, but I can.”
Another longtime employee is 62-year-old William Rivera. He first started going around the restaurant 13 years ago as a homeless man asking to work for food.
Joe would have him work around the grounds and he did such good work that he was hired as the maintenance man. Now he has his own apartment and is “doing well,” Joe said.
Rivera said he sticks around because of the people he works with and the customers. He is one of the 17 members of the team.
“It's not always easy, but the main thing is having a good work environment. They make that with the little things they do to make the store run well, and they give our customers the best service,” Joe said.
This year they're taking a walk down memory lane as they mark 50 years as a chain and 45 years as a franchise.
To check out the yearlong promotions, go to www.wienerschnitzel.com.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6856.