His Deliciously Unconventional Line-up keeps Them Lining Up.
The next time you’re in Charlotte, NC, head uptown to the corner of 4th and Tryon streets. There’s something I’d like you to see. I can just hear you say, “A hotdog cart?” But stay with me here. Acquaint yourself with Victor Werany – AKA “Vic the Chili Man” – and his array of home made creative hotdog add-ons. Trust me. You’ll never look at a hotdog the same way ever again.
Since Vic the Chili Man first set up his cart in 2004, bankers in business suits, delivery workers in T-shirts and helmets, and those sporting every form of attire in between choose to spend one or more week days a month standing in line for their favorite Chili Man concoction. But it isn’t only the food they come to enjoy. It’s Vic’s ability to joke and engage in lively banter with his customers that has them standing in line for up to an hour for their hot dog fix.
When Vic first obtained his license to operate his street food business, he thought he had landed a terrific spot. Then he learned the building he was in front of had been vacant for at least a decade. And at that time, the area was used as, among other things, an outdoor lavatory for the homeless.
Now the neighborhood is completely transformed, and the building is occupied by businesses and condos. With Bank of America only two blocks away, and the likes of Michael Jordan choosing to purchase a condo nearby, you know you’re sitting on prime food cart real estate.
So, what’s so special about a hotdog from Vic the Chili Man? Well, plenty. For one thing, Vic only serves up Khan’s Hotdogs from Cincinnati. As far as he’s concerned they’re the best, and not just because they’re the official hotdogs of the New York Mets. He wasn’t able to get Khan’s one day, so he substituted another quality dog. His customers noticed, and gave him hell.
Customer input is important to Vic. When the hotdogs increased in price, he offered his customers a choice between using a less expensive hotdog and a price increase. He let them try the new dog, and it was unanimous. They preferred to pay an extra quarter to keep the current base for Vic’s magic
The next thing that makes Vic the Chili Man’s dogs special is what he does to them. Think Cinderella. He takes a simple hotdog, and dresses it up for gastronomical prime time. Here are two examples:
- Life Changer: A dog on fried cheese, spicy mustard on one side of the bun, taco sauce on the other. Then toppings of chili, chopped onions, and pickled jalapeño. A customer who had just ordered one commented, “It’s so good, it’s life changing.”
- Pho Q (try saying it fast) Dog: chicken sesame aioli, followed by the dog, sesame flavored rice noodles, bean sprouts, jalapeños, green onions and home made Sriracha ginger barbecue sauce.
You’ll also find dogs dressed with mac and cheese, bacon and chili, humus with black olives, crushed felafel and home made harissa sauce, pesto, peanut butter, jam, Fritos and a whole lot of other things you’d never thought you’d ever see on a hotdog. “That’s the reason I’m so popular,” Vic explained. “I’m taking chances. I’m out there on the edge, doing things with hot dogs no one ever has. I’m trying to change the whole hot dog industry.”
Vic makes almost everything himself: mustards, ketchup, six or seven different types of chili and about 15 BBQ and other sauces. No, he doesn’t make the buns, but he thought about it.
For his vegetarian customers, Vic has meatless hotdogs and chili. “People who don’t see vegetarians as customers,” he noted, “ are losing out .”
Out of the Mouths of Customers
When we recently visited our son, Kevin in Charlotte, he raved about Vic the Chili Man, insisted there was a worthwhile story here and proceeded to warn Vic of our impending visit. That was how I found myself walking the line in front of Vic’s cart on a hot August afternoon recording what the Chili Man’s customers had to say about Vic’s dogs. Here’s a small sampling.
- It was Juan’s first time, so he was a Chili Man virgin. Will and John, who brought Juan, visit Vic weekly.
- Will: “It’s a hotdog you never thought could actually be created. It’s so good, it makes me perspire”
- John, a Chili Man regular for five years: “It’s a combination of Vic and the dogs. It’s the best hotdog I’ve ever had, and Vic is added entertainment.”
- Sean: I’ve been coming here at least since the financial crisis. I remember joking with him about the bail-outs. This is the only hotdog vendor I’ll go to.”
- Shay: “I don’t normally like hotdogs, but I like his.”
- Seth, who comes for the great food and conversation: “I like the Fritos Pie Dog. Vic’s magic: chili cheese, Fritos, on top of a hotdog, grilled cheese underneath the dog, chili and garlic infused sour cream.” He doesn’t try to eat it standing up, but sitting at his desk. “It’s a sitting down kind of dog.”
- Mike, on the other hand, is a multi-dogger finishing two before he even gets to his car.
- Tim has been eating Vic’s hotdogs on and off for 10 years. When he gets a bunch of dogs for his team, Vic puts them in a pizza box
- Camille tried Vic’s hotdogs for the first time the week before, and was back for more.
The Chili Man
Vic grew up in upstate New York. He was living in Oswego and engaged to his wife, Tara, when his North Carolina odyssey began. “It’s the place that Santa Claus moved away from, because it was too cold,” Vic said of Oswego. So he and Tara headed south, settling in Wilmington.
The couple worked and saved up enough money to travel around Europe for six weeks. Then, since they didn’t kill each other on that trip, they decided to get married.
In 1995, Vic and Tara relocated to Charlotte. It was Tara, a Bank of America Vice President, who came up with the idea of the food cart, which would enable Vic to be available for their two children when they came home from school. Vic had been working in the food business for many years, and truly loved it. He had also worked as a comedian and actor. The combination of food savvy, gregariousness and off-the-wall sense of humor turned out to be a killer recipe for success.
It usually takes Vic three hours to prep his cart in the morning, and about 45 minutes to set up when he arrives at his spot. Closing down takes from an hour-and-a-half to two hours. In between these activities, Vic holds court wearing a baseball cap worn backward and a smile for everyone who stops by his cart.
As Vic the Chili Man continued to grow in popularity, new opportunities came his way. He and his hotdog cart have already appeared in two movies – Bad Grandpa, and Max. as well as a Super Bowl commercial. Vic was also featured in a book, “Extraordinary Jobs Done Extraordinarily”.
At the time of our visit, Vic was considering having chili Man T-shirts made up, but I suggested bibs. Not only would they keep his customers – especially the business professionals – from wearing his ingredients, but they would definitely be unique.
One of the most important lessons in business came from a former employer. He told Vic, “There’s always room in the market for a superior product.” Vic took it to heart, and puts it into practice every day his cart is open for business.
When Vic started his business, his mission was that, “ten years after I serve my last hotdog, people are still talking about it. There’s never been a day in my life where I’ve gotten up and said, ”today, I’m going to be sooooo mediocre’. It’s either go big, or go home.”
Doing Well and Doing Good
Vic claims to own only one long-sleeved shirt, but that’s not the only reason you won’t see his cart between November and mid-March.
Disney World for some well-deserved R&R is usually first on the agenda. Then Vic gets serious. “I focus solely on my charity,” he explains. “It’s called SHRED (Skaters Helping Realize Extraordinary Dreams).” SHRED raises funds in support of families with children who face major medical challenges.
The main fundraising event is a skateboard art show and auction. Featuring hand-painted items such as skateboards, pizza peels, ceramic skulls and more to provide assistance to three families.
It all began in 2013, when Vic organized the first annual fundraising event for his neighbor, Gabe Ospina, a 5-year-old with spina bifida. Two families were added in subsequent years. There’s a lot of hard work in raising these funds, but for Vic, it’s giving back for the fabulous life he has.
So, what did Simon and I choose? Simon had the Fritos Pie, and I had the Life Changer. Neither of us are hotdog lovers, but we became immediate Chili Man converts after one bite. Vic’s dogs are a magic combination of love, creativity and a good kind of insanity, just like their creator.
Have you found a new take on a not-so favorite food that has made you a convert? If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.
For more information on Vic the Chili Man, his menu and anything else you might want to know about the man and his dogs, check out his Facebook Page.