On Sunday, the popular PBS restaurant review show, “Check, Please! Arizona,” hosts its first food festival at CityScape in Phoenix. While attendees enjoy a plethora of food and wine samples and live demonstrations from award-winning chefs like Robert McGrath and Chris Bianco, one humble festival booth — Pittsburgh Willy’s Gourmet Hot Dogs — takes the next step in its Cinderella story.
Started by East Valley resident Randy Walters in 2008 as an old-fashioned hot dog stand, Pittsburgh Willy’s devotion to serving wieners, pierogies and no-bean chili quickly gained it a devoted Chandler following. It wasn’t long before they moved into a more permanent location in the Merchant Square Antique Mall on Arizona Avenue and eventually landed a spot on the 2012 season of “Check, Please! Arizona.”
That exposure was priceless, Walters said, providing a bit of fairy godmother magic for the little restaurant.
“We had 4,000 new customers in four weeks and every time they replay the show we get a bump,” he said. “I’m there every day and to date, just from “Check, Please! Arizona, we’re at 9,000 new customers.”
“It has been phenomenal… you can’t buy that type of advertising.”
Walters, who has plans in the works to open another location in downtown Chandler, hopes to attract even more customers at Sunday’s festival. He’ll be serving up samples of “Freddie G” hot dogs — an all beef wiener topped with barbecue sauce, French fried onions and freshly grated asiago cheese — and plenty of Midwestern hospitality.
That emphasis on building relationships is one of the key factors in Walter’s success. “Not having any background (in the food industry), experience or money I really had to do this the old fashioned way with hard work, shaking hands and getting to know people,” he said.
Before opening Pittsburgh Willy’s, Walters worked as a paramedic and a painter, always nurturing a dream of owning his own eatery. After he was laid off from his painting job, he decided it was time to make his dream a reality.
“I didn’t know enough to fail,” he said. “I’d been a consumer all my life and I threw my heart and soul into it.”
Thanks in large part to “Check, Please! Arizona,” Walters now easily keeps 17 tables busy at his Merchant Square location and looks forward to Sunday’s festival.
“There is really something to the American Dream if you’re willing to work hard,” he said.
IF YOU GO
What: Eight’s ”Check, Please! Arizona” inaugural food festival
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 28
Where: CityScape, 1 E. Washington St., Phoenix
Cost: $60 general admission includes food and wine tastings; $100 VIP admission includes food and wine samplings, chef seminar, exclusive wine tastings, 30-minute early entry to the festival, and VIP valet parking.