Small businesses are as much about relationships and personality as anything else and Randy Walters, owner of Wimpy’s Paradise, has that in spades.
Small businesses are as much about relationships and personality as anything else and Randy Walters has both in spades.
He’s a character.
Part free-loving, free-hugging restaurateur, part funny man and part downtown Chandler cheerleader.
Take his response to people who body shamed Lady Gaga after her Super Bowl half-time show. He and two local guys unabashedly posted their own shirt-free dance on YouTube.
He’s also the guy who helped rally support this spring for a mom and daughter living out of their van in Chandler.
And he’s the guy who turned his sidewalk sandwich board sign into an olive branch after the divisive presidential election.
“We don’t care about your race, color, religion, sexual orientation, political views or if your [sic] a vegetarian,” it reads.
The sign also offers free hugs. “Let’s become a world of hugs and help not hate and hurt,” it says.
That’s Walters, the owner of Wimpy’s Paradise, 48 S. San Marcos Place, in downtown Chandler.
Originally from outside of Pittsburgh, the 63-year-old has called Chandler home for the past 41 years, after following his high school sweetheart to the desert.
“Randy creatively works hard to keep this jewel of a restaurant on the map,” Chandler Vice Mayor Kevin Hartke said. “While the food is great at Wimpy’s Paradise, what I like most about the restaurant is the owner.”
Walters estimates he’s given over 3,000 hugs since the sign went up, and he plans to keep them coming.
He admits that he didn’t really think about how people might react to the sign when he put it up but he knew he needed to do it.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people in this world are good,” Walters said, “it’s the small percent that creates all the havoc, all the wars and gets all the attention.”
Walters wanted to highlight that belief with his sign. He jokes that the inclusiveness extends to “grammar Nazis” who point out that “your” on the sign should be “you’re.”
The reaction has been largely supportive with only two incidents Walters could think of where people reacted negatively. One person took offense to a rainbow heart sticker on his door which states “love is love.”
The sign and its message have reverberated beyond Chandler, making its way onto the popular website Reddit where it has gathered over 150 comments and thousands of up-votes.
Two of the best hugs
Walters hugs restaurant patrons and passers-by alike.Two, in particular, have stuck with him.
One day, a Muslim man walked in and asked about the free hugs. The two men hugged and when Walters pulled away he noticed the man’s eyes welling with tears.
“He thanked me because his wife and family have been the target of so much hate,” Walters said.
Another instance involved a woman in her mid-20s and it still chokes Walters up.
The young woman walked into the restaurant and asked about the free hugs. Walter hugged the woman, but noticed that she was hugging tighter than most people and for much longer.
“I kinda just hugged tightly back,” Walters said.
When she finally let go he noticed she was crying and asked if she was OK.
“I’m in a very dark place right now,” the woman said. She admitted she had planned on killing herself that day. “That was just what I needed,” she told him before leaving the restaurant.
Walters doesn’t know the ultimate fate of the woman and gets emotional when talking about it.
“You don’t know what windmills people are fighting,” Walters said, using a napkin to wipe away tears.
Selling burgers but feeding the soul
Social media played a pivotal role, for better or worse, during the last election cycle.
Walters saw this and was especially impacted by posts from his friends. Messages of fear and hate towards other religions or political beliefs were appearing on his feed.
That’s when Walters decided to use social media for more than sharing pictures of his signature burgers.
The restaurant hosted an event featuring Tara Ijai who started the Love Glasses Revolution, a campaign that sells heart-shaped glasses and donates a portion of the proceeds to non-profits. Walters used Facebook to promote the event.
He invited the Facebook friends who he saw spreading hateful messages. Many didn’t show up but some did and spoke with Ijai about her experiences, her Muslim faith and her dreams.
“I make my money selling food but I feed my heart and soul,” Walters said, adding he aims to keep Wimpy’s Paradise a family-friendly place with a welcoming atmosphere.
Walters has used his restaurant to help raise food and money for food banks and even started a pay it forward fund to help feed the homeless, veterans and police officers. The fund currently has more than $400.
“I want people to know it’s not just about the food,” Walters said.
But the food is also very good.
What’s on the menu?
Walters got in the restaurant business with a hot dog cart called Pittsburgh Willy’s.
Hot dogs are still a mainstay and his all-beef, no-bean chili hot dog is one of his most popular items.
“I like his Sonoran dogs and cheeseburgers,” Hartke said.
There’s also ‘Gourmet Hot Dogs” such as the Greek Willy, which features kalamata olives and feta cheese.
Or the Twilly dog for the adventurous. The Twilly Dog was created on National Hot Dog Day in 2013 to “honor two American food icons, the Twinkie and the hot dog.”
The original comes with a Twinkie bun, a Hebrew National hot dog, smoked bacon and creamy Jiff peanut butter.
The restaurant also offers a variety of burgers, including the Mac’n’Cheese burger and the peanut butter and jelly bacon burger.
“You’d be surprised how many people actually choose that one,” Walters said.
Wimpy’s variety of burgers and hot dogs have landed Walters on multiple top lists and gotten the restaurant featured on foodie shows, including “Check, Please! Arizona” back when it was just called Pittsburgh Willy’s. Walters merged the two restaurants in 2014.
Along with good comfort food, Walters hopes people feel welcome and walk away with more than a full stomach.
“I’m serving more than just food,” Walters said.
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