The Hot Dog Queen
Cindy Galardi Culpepper, the sudden CEO of Wienerschnitzel, sees a way for the fast-food empire to uplift others
For decades, she seemed a minor character in the story of the world’s largest hot dog chain: the pretty sunbather who caught the boss’s eye at the beach; the boss’s new wife; the boss’s ex-wife. “I was the silent partner,” she says, and it seemed in more ways than one.
But these days, Cindy Galardi Culpepper, 68, stands at the center of Wienerschnitzel’s tale. After her ex-husband, Wienerschnitzel founder John Galardi, died of cancer in 2013, Culpepper was left holding nearly all the Orange County company’s voting stock.
“People would ask me the last 10 years or so, ‘What if something happened to John?’” says Culpepper, who was married to Galardi for 27 years. “Then it happened. And I was thrown into it.”
Instead of selling, or settling for a low-profile role, she decided to take the reins as chief executive of the 54-year-old chain.
By many measures, that decision seemed an unlikely one. Culpepper didn’t graduate from college. Though she ran two small businesses in her 20s and into her early 30s, she spent much of her adulthood as a philanthropist and stay-at-home mother to two children and two nephews she raised. After her divorce from Galardi in 2009, she married a successful Virginia businessman and, by her own account, was spending most of her days working out, cooking meals and “doing nothing of any consequence.”
So why return to OC for a high-stress job running her ex-husband’s fast-food company? Culpepper says she sensed her chance to leave a mark on the family business that she’d long studied from the sidelines. Wienerschnitzel was poised for growth and so was she.
“I knew that for 20 years the company hadn’t done much,” she says. “I thought there’s so much opportunity here. This is my passion now. I think about it when I go to bed, about how we can make it better.”
Culpepper was speaking from her practically appointed Irvine office – unpretentious contemporary furniture, family photographs, Wienerschnitzel paraphernalia – at the Galardi Group, the parent company of Wienerschnitzel and the brands it acquired over the years, including Tastee Freez and the Original Hamburger Stand.
Divorced and remarried, she and Galardi remained on friendly terms and Culpepper maintained her financial interest in the company. Though few people at the company knew how much attention Culpepper paid to the operations, her family did.
Son J.R. Galardi, a 27-year-old executive expected to run the company one day, remembers his mother asking his father lots of questions about the company. “The ongoing dialogue in our family was always about the business,” he says.
Culpepper is tan and blond, and it’s easy to discern a longtime devotion to Pilates, spin and weightlifting: She’s wearing black leather pants that would intimidate most women pushing 70 – or 40. Photographs in her office reveal another hobby: amateur car racing. At one time, she and current husband David Culpepper had a Porsche race car (“It was great cornering, but it didn’t go fast enough for me,” she says) and eventually got a custom-built Ford that blew out during a run.
But the high-octane pastime is a red herring when it comes to Culpepper. In person, she’s measured and plain-spoken, more serene than shy. She is an observer by nature and indeed in her first two years as CEO, she “kind of sat back,” she says. “I had walked into a male fraternity.” She stumbled at first, breaching, for instance, unwritten chain-of-command protocols. “I initially stepped on a few toes,” she says.
The new CEO used those early days to educate herself. She read business books and went online to listen to big-picture talks by the likes of Simon Sinek and Steve Jobs. Even her dinner conversations with friends changed. Best friend Sue Grant of Newport Beach recalls how Culpepper started quizzing Grant’s developer husband, Gary, about the real estate business. “She developed this thirst for knowledge,” Grant says.
One thing Culpepper took away from her crash course was the need for a sense of purpose. Selling lots of hot dogs to make lots of money was great; she and her family could surely testify to that. But she wondered if there should be more to it.
“I was at a small little meeting with our president and the president of our ad agency,” she recalls. “I said, ‘If you really want to know what my dream is, it’s to take this company that has so much possibility and go into the community.’ From that point we decided to change the course of our business. Rather than just looking at transactions and profits and gain, why not look at what we can do to help others?”
Not everyone would make the leap from fast food to philanthropy. But in some ways, there has always been a connection between Culpepper’s charity work and Wienerschnitzel. When she and Galardi were married in 1982, she asked him what he thought she should do with her time since she wasn’t working. Galardi suggested she get involved in the community.
That was something new. Before she met Galardi, Culpepper’s focus was on keeping herself afloat. As a teen, she had run away from her Buena Park home to Lake Tahoe, marrying (and later divorcing) a high school boyfriend. She’d owned and operated a small printing company and property management firm she later sold.
Culpepper found that she took to philanthropy work. Living in Newport Beach, she volunteered with a counseling program for children and teenagers, running fundraising rummage sales. When the family moved to Aspen for 20 years, she was involved in a number of charitable programs, including one that paid for teenagers from poor families to take ski lessons along with teens from wealthier backgrounds.
“I know that sounds frivolous,” she says. “But if you’re all learning something together, if you fall down and the person next to you picks you up, you start building an understanding and respect for someone who may not be exactly like you.”
Culpepper has a difficult time pinpointing why exactly the work appealed to her. “I don’t know,” she says, “I’m just extremely passionate about helping those who can’t help themselves but are trying.”
She is mostly private about her upbringing, but Culpepper says she ran away from home because of a “very dysfunctional” family situation. Asked if this might have given her some insight into other people’s struggles, Culpepper seems surprised by the question.
“Maybe it was,” she muses. “Maybe it is something to do with my tough upbringing and knowing how vulnerable children are. When you’re a child, you’re at the mercy of your environment.”
Grant says Culpepper “got her tools for survival. I think she knows that there are people who didn’t get all the tools they needed. When she got the means, she gave back.”
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Wienerschnitzel serves more than 120 million hot dogs a year at roughly 340 drive-through restaurants in 11 states. Under the plan spearheaded by Culpepper, the company will contribute an undetermined portion of its revenue to charity each year, something she says will back up its new mission statement: serving food to serve others.
When deciding what charities Wienerschnitzel should first help, Culpepper turned to Grant, who founded a Newport Beach nonprofit, The Literacy Project, dedicated to helping disadvantaged children improve their reading skills. Besides her friendship with Grant, Culpepper knew of the organization and had made private donations to it over the years.
The Literacy Project provides specialized instruction for second-graders in the poorest schools who need the most help. Wienerschnitzel is one of the foundation’s lead donors, with corporate gifts totaling $110,000.
“You can feed somebody and they’re hungry again in four hours. But you give somebody the gift of literacy and it lasts them a lifetime,” says Culpepper. “Their attitudes change. It’s just amazing. We’re giving these children an opportunity they may not have had.”
Dennis Tase, the Galardi Group’s chief operating officer and president for more than 30 years, says he wasn’t sure what to expect of Culpepper. When he knew her, he says, she was focused on raising her family. But when she took the job, she quickly impressed him on how much she already knew about the company. Her push for a new community service component in the business plan went over well, he says, even at a company that had done very few outreach projects in the past.
“She is breathing new life into the company,” he says. “The lady has got so much energy. It just filters down.”
Culpepper is also credited with helping repair strained relationships with some of the company’s longtime franchise owners.
Paul Rauterkus, who has two Wienerschnitzel franchises in Utah, said there had often been an “us versus them” mentality. “Corporate was corporate, and they wanted to get every little penny out of it,” said Rauterkus, who has run the restaurants for nearly two decades.
He said Culpepper’s warm and unpretentious personality has gone a long way in changing the vibe. She visited one of his locations, sat down at a table “and started talking with me like we’d known each other forever. With her, it’s ‘How can we help you be more profitable?’ ” he said.
For instance, Rauterkus had struggled financially in the past eight years and ended up owing the Galardi Group money. Culpepper wanted him to paint the buildings and make some other updates, but he told her he didn’t think he could do that work while making loan payments. So she’s canceled the loan payments while he finishes the upgrades.
Grant says she hasn’t been surprised by what Culpepper has done at the company. Her untraditional resume, she says, contained the right skills: from compassion to the discipline of her daily workout regimen to the organized mindset required to run big dinner parties. When Culpepper took the job, Grant told her: “Cindy, do you realize you’ve been in training for this all your life?”
Add endurance to that resume. Culpepper is on the road most weeks, and she and her husband divide their time between their primary residence in Virginia and their rental house in Newport Beach. She plans to expand the chain to additional states. Last month she was featured in an episode of CBS’ “Undercover Boss.” Her rookie doubts are far behind her.
“I had a fear when I started. I said, ‘Gosh, what if I make a mistake?’ ” she says. “But then I thought, ‘Well, John made mistakes. We all make mistakes.’ Making a mistake, I decided, is not a bad thing. Because you learn from your failures. And if you don’t, that’s the mistake.”