Before Pennsylvania native Randy Walters opened his iconic Pittsburgh Willy's hot dog shop inside Chandler's Merchant Square antiques mall, he pounded the pavement with a traditional dog cart. "I didn't even know how to cook," he says. "I had no experience in the restaurant business. But I had this dream of opening a hot dog stand all my life."
Walters approached the mall's management staff about putting a cart on-site and instead scored a small kitchen at the front of the store where a fudge shop used to be.
Two years later, he has a solid grasp of cooking techniques, a loyal customer base (most of whom he knows by name) and an expanded storefront. Over the past few months, Walters worked alongside family and friends to renovate a large separate corner room adjacent to his old counter. After being slightly delayed due to personal medical issues, he added tables and a cash-only register and by mid-July he had moved the operation into its new home.
Walters and his wife are still working out of the miniscule kitchen they first started in, but construction on a brand new and much larger kitchen behind the dining area is underway. He also has a few other tricks up his sleeve -- including input from a well-known Valley chef, outdoor patio seating and an expanded menu.
More on Chandler's top dog after the jump.
Though the new dining room includes a small wall space for Arizona Cardinals photos, there's still no doubt about Walters' home team. Painted a muted grey, the space is crammed with team photos, Terrible Towels and other Pittsburgh Steelers ephemera, some of which was donated by customers. "I always tell people it's their restaurant, I just run it," Walters quips. "I had no idea there were so many Pittsburgh transplants here."
One of Walters' customers, Chef Brandon Crouser, actually had a hand in the redesign of the menu, which is expanding to include more desserts and breakfast offerings that will initially be served starting at 6 a.m. on weekends. Crouser, who is currently shopping for a permanent location for his displaced Crudo restaurant, came on board as a consultant a few months ago.
But regulars needn't worry that their favorite dogs will be replaced.
With the exception of a few desserts, all of Willy's current menu offerings are staying put, including the 3-Legged Chili Dog with homemade no-bean chili and the Blitzburgh pierogies with kraut, onions, chili, cheese and kielbasa. Look for new sandwiches named after regular customers, hearty pancakes, breakfast burritos made with fresh Food City tortillas, and malted milkshakes like the banana-and-fudge special that made its way to a table during our visit.
Despite Crouser's influence, the focus will remain on American comfort foods. "If you want an omelet with brie and spinach, there are plenty of places in Scottsdale for that," says Walters. "If you just want simple, good food, come here."
Pittsburgh Willy's is currently open until 3 p.m. on weekdays (7 p.m. on Wednesdays) and 4 p.m. on weekends. Walters is looking to start breakfast service and expanded hours next month.