CHAMPAIGN — How far would you drive for a hot dog and chili fries?
If you’re one of Jameel Saqri’s customers, maybe pretty far.
Saqri’s Wienerschnitzel/Tastee-Freez restaurant in Champaign — with its signature A-frame roof and red-and-yellow color scheme — is the only place in the Midwest to get Wienerschnitzel’s fare.
In fact, it’s pretty much the lone Wienerschnizel outpost in about half the U.S., with no locations at all east of Illinois.
Saqri said he’s gotten used to customers telling him and his staff they drove hours to get there.
“Most of the customers who come in here, they tell us a story,” he said.
And some stock up while they’re in town. Customers will come in and buy 50 to 100 hot dogs to take home and freeze, plus cans of the chain’s chili sauce, said Saqri’s son, Thair, who helps his dad in the restaurant and is also working on an advanced degree to become a nurse practitioner.
Not everybody calls ahead to say they’ll be coming in for a lot of food, Thair Saqri said, but “we’re always prepared for that.”
“We have a family that drives here once a year for dinner from Kentucky,” he said.
Once, a man flew into Willard Airport in a private jet to buy Wienerschnitzel chili dogs for his dying father who used to live in Champaign, he said.
Stories like these aren’t uncommon for Wienerschnitzel locations, said Glenda Vaquerano, spokeswoman for The Galardi Group, the parent company of Wienerschnitzel, Hamburger Stand and Tastee-Freez.
“We get that a lot,” she said. “We have a lot of hardcore fans.”
With the exception of this lone Wienerschnitzel in Illinois, all other locations are clustered in nine other states in the West and South — Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Washington.
The next closest location? Either Baton Rouge, La., or a cluster in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, each about 800 miles away.
Founded in 1961 in Southern California, Wienerschnitzel calls itself the world’s largest hot dog chain. It currently has 330 locations and serves over 120 million hot dogs a year.
The Champaign location has been around since 1971, according to Thair Saqri.
Jameel Saqri took over the Champaign franchise in 2013. The 58-year-old native of Jordan came to the U.S. to study engineering at Southern Illinois University.
After graduating, though, he decided to go into the restaurant business.
“I always love to cook,” he said.
He operated an ice cream and sandwich restaurant in Chicago for a decade and the former Land of Mexico restaurant at 202 E. Green St., C, in the 1990s, he and his son said.
Thair Saqri, one of five siblings in the family — some of whom also help out at the restaurant — said his father had heard that the Wienerschnitzel restaurant in Champaign was going to close and called the company and said he was interested in buying it.
Chili dogs and chili cheese fries are popular. So are all-beef Chicago hot dogs. The chili used in the restaurant is made fresh daily, Jameel Saqri said, but it’s also sold in cans for customers who want to take it with them.
The Champaign location has remained open through the pandemic, keeping its drive-thru open and employees working, and its dining room has also reopened.
Despite the pandemic, Irvine, Calif.-based Wienerschnitzel said its sales were up 16.8 percent in 2020 and have continued strong into this year.
Ted Milburn, director of franchise development, said the Champaign Wienerschnitzel does “very well” and that has been one of the catalysts for rolling out a development incentive plan for new Midwest markets.
The company has a few prospective franchisee candidates for Missouri and Iowa, and new Midwestern locations would likely be west of the Mississippi River, he said.
Braeden Peters of Moline was in the Champaign Wienerschnitzel last week with his family. They used to have one in Moline, Peters said, and since they were in Bloomington for a golf tournament, they decided to trek another hour east to Champaign to have Wienerschnitzel chili dogs for lunch.
“And they still taste the same,” he said.