Between the Motos: J.R. Galardi

Between the Motos J.R. Galardi

May 14, 2015 10:30am

Okay, we all love this sport, and we all think that every company should get behind it, but some sponsorship deals are even surprising to fans like us. When Wienerschnitzel, the world’s largest hot dog chain, jumped on board with the Autotrader.com/Toyota/JGR Yamaha team this year, the fit seemed a little odd. Why did they pick motocross? But then we saw Phil Nicoletti do laps of the supercross test track while wearing a hot dog suit, and then we got free hot dogs in the JRG pit at the races…we were starting to believe! 

Still, why? We caught up with Wienerschnitzel chief visionary officer J.R. Galardi in the pits at the Las Vegas Supercross and tried to find out (we did the interview while eating hot dogs, of course). 

Racer X: The most obvious question that everyone in the sport is wondering is why would Wienerschnitzel sponsor a supercross and motocross team? What is the theory behind this?
J.R. Galardi: We found out that 60 percent of supercross fans eat fast food more than three times a week, so that right there solidifies our reason for sponsorship. Also, Coy Gibbs and I were already friends and wanted to work together. I love the Gibbs family—they’re great people. Coming in as a sponsor, not only for supercross, but for the Gibbs organization in general, not only helps our brand, but I think helps us build together into new markets and open up to a whole new fan base that might have heard of Wienerschnitzel, but didn’t necessarily know exactly what it is or have a reason to go.

There’s a couple components here because there’s Wienerschnitzel places you can go and eat, but then now you’re branching out into grocery stores where you can buy the stuff to bring home too. Is that part of it?
We have a few retail stores selling Wienerschnitzel product. Branching out into retail is something that Coy and I are working on together. Right now we have some product in a couple of Albertson and Costco locations, but it’s not the number-one priority for us at this time. It’s definitely a goal of mine to pursue in the future. The brick and mortar stores, that’s our foundation.

And that’s what people have seen probably for decades now.
We’ve been around since 1961. We have that iconic A-frame store that people recognize us for. It’s unfortunate, but they’re actually illegal to build now with today’s building codes.

Wow. So you have to keep the ones you have?
We came up with a reimagined version of the old A-frame style store, which we call a “heritage building.” We just opened one in El Paso, Texas. An A-frame is classically just a walkup and a drive-thru without a dining room, so we took that same model and reinvented it. We’re running good numbers at this new store so far, which makes sense considering 80 percent of our business comes from drive-thru customers.

"What’s great about supercross is there’s not necessarily one demographic. It spans every age; you see parents, grandparents, and children." – Galardi Photo: Courtesy Wienerschnitzel

I’ve seen the store that’s not far from Angel Stadium in Anaheim. I’ve been there. So the hope is then that this demographic that’s hanging out here in Vegas is a similar group that would go to those?
Absolutely. What’s great about supercross is there’s not necessarily one demographic. It spans every age; you see parents, grandparents, and children. It’s such a melting pot of different people, which makes it really fun to be a part of. 

But let’s be honest, I’m sure NASCAR or baseball, those fans eat fast food also. So there had to be something. Was it the personal connection with you and Coy, beyond just the demographic? Sure, you could find that here, could probably find it a lot of places.
There’s nothing more fun than working with your friends, so having a personal relationship with Coy and the Gibbs family definitely was a contributing factor, but it actually has blown my mind how well we were received within the supercross industry. Being a very small, tight-knit industry, the supercross space can be pretty tough for a brand to break into. I think it helps that we came in organically and all we’re doing is feeding people, rather than throwing our logo in people’s faces. Our goal isn’t to push, push, push. We really just want to hang out, feed people our great hot dogs, and make sure everyone is having a good time. I think that the fans and people in the industry can see that we’re well intentioned and are genuinely seeking to become part of the community. 

It does seem like sponsors are getting smarter with activation. If you came to the races ten years ago there were just teams and they had their bikes with logos on them. That was it. Now every team has something pretty innovative in their pit. It seems like you really have to be pretty edgy to get some attention now that everyone’s doing something cool.
I agree completely. With a name like Wienerschnitzel, I’m sure you can imagine that the wiener jokes are endless. It’s a fun brand that lends itself to tons of creative opportunities. 

[Laughs] You’re embracing that?
Definitely. If you can’t laugh at yourself, what’s the point? 

This is your family business, but you seem like a pretty young guy to be in the position that you’re in. How was this all able to happen for you as a career?
My first job was in a store when I was 13. I started in a Wienerschnitzel running the cash register and cooking fries. We actually had a beer tap in that store, so I learned how to pour a pretty good beer at a very young age. I’ve worked in every aspect of the company: in marketing, as a franchise area director, and in operations. As a family business, I’ve been able to make my way through the system starting at a young age.  When my dad passed away, there was added pressure to learn quickly and it elevated me faster than was originally planned, but in a good way. The best way to learn how to swim is to just jump in the water. It was a learning experience and how I’ve gotten to the level I’m at now. I’m 26, but I think business experience comes into play over age, and I have fourteen years of experience working in the company.

Weege, JR, and Tat from Pirelli enjoy a supercross dog.
Weege, JR, and Tat from Pirelli enjoy a supercross dog. Photo: Weigandt

Do you have to be a straight-up businessman a lot of the times, or are you still going to do some fun stuff?
It’s all fun! Everyone I work with is really nice and we all have such great chemistry, so it’s a good blend of work and play. I have great relationships with my management team and franchisees since I’ve grown up with them. Many of them have been in the system for decades. Definitely there is a switch where you have to be business-minded, and there’s this fine balance, but to me work is fun. For example, I was just on the road for a month for our inaugural Hot Dogs for Homeless tour. We set this goal to raise $100,000 and give away over forty thousand hot dogs. It’s a bar I set with my friend and tour partner, Mike Smith, the founder of Skate for Change. We were just like, how crazy would it be if we actually did that? And we did, which is mind blowing. We raised $100,000 and gave out forty thousand hot dogs to the homeless in thirty days in twenty cities.

And you just drove around?
I personally drove the RV. There were seven of us living in an RV for the past thirty days. To me that was a blast. The goal of this tour was simple: to feed as many homeless as possible, and to make a lasting impression on anyone we come across. We would wake up, do a news interview, go to a school, cook hot dogs for the students, and then we’d invite those kids to join us after school to go out into the community and pass out socks and other necessities to the homeless community. Our hope was that those kids would maintain it after we leave. The ripple effect that it had was insane. It’s the same thing with supercross and how we came in organically. I think kids today are so educated on the brands that they’re supporting and they want to back something that they believe in. This philanthropic tour created a lot of good energy towards Wienerschnitzel. Every market we went to we had a spike in sales, which wasn’t the plan at all. But, when you’re driving a forty-foot RV around a city it’s like a mobile billboard. We were on the news a few times a day, you have kids talking, tweeting…the number of impressions is huge. This tour was all about boots-on-the-ground marketing. It’s not something you can pay for—you have to actually go out and do it. 

You said you went to a lot of races this year. Obviously it’s not a coincidence—you must be into supercross and motocross in general?
I’ve been a fan of the sport for a long time. I’ve ridden dirt bikes since I was young, but never raced. I grew up in Colorado in the mountains and, in the summer when you’re not snowboarding, we’d ride dirt bikes on all the trails. It’s a blast! 

So you always followed the racing?
Yeah. It was kind of hard, though, when I was younger because they weren’t televised as much as they are today. And, that was when the Internet was still kind of shaky, so it was basically just magazines.

So you followed it as a fan and now all of a sudden you’re on the inside.
Yeah, that’s always kind of weird, but it’s also pretty awesome. You see all these industries like the snow and moto as a kid. You’re like, I wonder what it’s like to know those guys. Now I’m actually friends with guys like [Justin] Barcia, and [Weston] Peick, and it’s great. Motocross can be a very intimidating industry with the image around it. Tattoos, high risk… it can put off a perception of being hard. But then, when you break into it, everyone is so friendly and genuine.

Peick and Barcia seem like gnarly guys but they’re cool.
They’re super cool. I love those guys. They’re funny.

Phil-In Nicoletti even had to fill the hot dog costume.
Phil-In Nicoletti even had to fill the hot dog costume. Photo: Courtesy Wienerschnitzel

The whole sport could benefit from more outside sponsors. It would help the teams, it would help the riders, it would help the sport in general. It’s early for you guys, but you’ve found that this is a viable place to spend some dollars with a race team?
This industry is a great fit for us and we’re not going anywhere. The fun activations and our new partnerships, like with Toyota for example, have been awesome. Did you see our rally car?

Yeah, I noticed that walking over here. They debuted that new Rav4 rally car.
We love that we are a sponsor. Our Toyota partnership came up because they saw what we were doing at JGRMX and the promotional opportunities we were creating. They’re leveraging assets that we wouldn’t even think of and bringing them to us, as opposed to us approaching them. It’s opened up so many different doors and avenues. The marketing is great, but the networking is huge as well. 

It’s business-to-business, which is a huge deal on the sponsor side now. You struck a deal with Toyota because you both sponsor this team.
Absolutely. It’s great. The B-to-B aspect is huge. They have a different fan base, and they can get impressions that we can’t necessarily get on our own. We’re known for our hot dogs and chili, but now we’re focused on building the brand. We have about 330 stores and serve about 3 million customers a month. That’s 3 million new impressions that our partners might not have been able to reach. Beyond the financial parts, the value added from a marketing standpoint is huge. It’s a ton of fun collaborating our brands. We had pictures of Barcia and Peick along with our partnership logos on the cups in our stores—that’s big for everyone involved. 

If you were doing your job thirty years ago, you’d just buy commercials on TV and you’d be done. It’s cool because you get to do neat stuff, but it’s hard to figure out what is the best way.
There are so many different things we can do, but we’re doing it strategically. We can’t just do everything at once. It’s also difficult to track how effective some of these activations are. We launched a #Wienercross sweepstakes in celebration of our JGRMX partnership. Although we can see how many people are using the hash-tag, it’s challenging to measure ROI with non-traditional media, like social. But it’s also really fun because you can get a lot more creative than maybe a TV commercial. TV commercials are still a very big aspect of our marketing plan, but we’re approaching content differently now. We had a pre-roll video on YouTube that promoted the Wienercross sweepstakes that got a ton of views. It was strictly for social use. But we weren’t promoting that on TV at the time. I like the idea of running multiple campaigns simultaneously that appeal to different audiences, so that’s why we’re here.