On April 3 Jay Feiz, owner of Wonderdogs restaurant, entertained a special visitor. Bob Schwartz, Vice President of Vienna Beef, inducted Feiz and Wonderdogs into the Vienna Beef Hall of Fame, based on the owner’s dedication and overall success. Feiz has owned Wonderdogs for over 25 years — a long time for any business to be in operation, let alone a business in such a competitive industry, located in an area that seems to just keep on growing. Wonderdogs’ ascension to a community mainstay wasn’t the easiest of journeys. Feiz, 64, could tell you that much.
After graduating from Rutgers University in 1979, Feiz began moving around the country for work. After a stint near his alma mater, he landed a position in Arkansas as an engineer, a job he held for six years. Then a move to Champaign in 1986 changed everything.
“I moved in with my niece. Her husband was a professor at U of I,” Feiz explained.
The new residence was never meant to be permanent. Feiz even left his niece’s home for six months to travel, but upon returning something clicked.
“When I got back, I realized I really liked Champaign,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do something on my own, right here.”
Wonderdogs, then located on 6th Street, was available. Feiz bought it and ran the business up until 1999 when the leaseholders, Busey Bank, decided to use the space for their own purposes.
“So then I bought Greek Table on 6th Street,” Feiz said. Five months of remodeling and decorating followed, but Feiz was happy when he opened for business. Unfortunately, the optimistic attitude would soon be washed away.
“The city came to do some work on the creek that ran near the building,” Feiz said. “When they did that, they damaged the foundation to my building and the city was forced to condemn it as unsafe.”
For eight months Feiz dealt with insurance companies and city officials.
“I realized then that they [the city] might not do anything about it,” Feiz explained. “I found out that the city actually wanted to tear the building down because of liability reasons.”
Feiz did not stand idly by to watch. In February of 2000, he purchased a coffee shop on Wright Street and promptly renamed it Wonderdogs. Old customers responded well to the change in location.
"My customers are loyal,” Feiz said. “A lot of them go and get jobs elsewhere, but when they come back they stop by. A lot of them were kids when they first came in with their parents. Now they have kids of their own and they bring them in.”
Feiz also believes the Chicago-style menu appeals to the students from the Chicago area who are attending college in Champaign. Despite these advantages, though, the struggle to remain successful in the community continues to grow.
“Back in 1986, there were only a few restaurants near campus,” Feiz explained. “Most of the students didn’t have cars or couldn't use buses, so a lot of them stayed on campus just about every weekend.”
Nowadays students have what seems like an unlimited amount of dining options to choose from. The increased availability of public transportation, as well as a growth in the number of students on campus who own cars also poses threats for the business.
“The number of students never changes that much, maybe by a few hundred either way each semester,” Feiz said, “but now they have all these choices. You need to have a good product and good customer service.”
Feiz has delivered on both. David Greenstein, a member of the University of Illinois’ Hot Dog Club, says that members agree Wonderdogs is “the best.”
“The whole staff is really friendly,” Greenstein, 29, added. “They’ll come out and talk to us and ask us how we are doing.”
That personal touch has the Club’s 30 members coming to Wonderdogs religiously every Friday during the regular school year.
“We enjoy seeing them,” Greenstein said. “They are a community staple, and have been around the area for years and years. They’re part of the scene in Champaign-Urbana, while some other places are not.”
Feiz, his wife Sarah, 54, and one other employee make up the entire staff at Wonderdogs. Each looks forward to the Friday visits by the Club.
“They take up eight or nine tables,” Feiz said. “Right before they leave, they all circle up and yell ‘Go hot dog!’ and hold up their hands.”
Aside from the delicious hot dogs that have Greenstein and his friends coming back on a weekly basis, Feiz credits the restaurant’s Daily Special as a force for building up a steady clientele. Featuring a different item each day, the Daily Special offers a lower-than-normal price.
“For instance, on Tuesdays the special is Polish sausage,” Feiz explained. “Five dollars can get you a polish, some fries, and a drink. Bratwursts are on special for Thursdays, hot dogs on Wednesdays. A lot of people know what’s on special for each day and come in for that.”
Feiz makes it easy for customers to remember. The rotation for the Daily Special hasn’t changed in the restaurant’s 25 years of being in business.
“I’d like to advertise even more,” Feiz went on, “but money is a little tight right now, as it is with everyone else.”
A general workday for the owner consists of arriving at the restaurant at 8:00 a.m., working all day, and closing up shop around 7:00 p.m.
“I used to be open seven days a week, but I’m closed on Sundays now,” Feiz said. “I normally am at the store buying things for here on that day.”
With his wife Sarah, Feiz is the father of two children, both of which he assures still love coming to eat at Wonderdogs. Feiz himself admits that after all these years he isn’t tired of eating just about anything the menu has to offer. “There’s nothing like Vienna,” he said, smiling.
“I think everything at Wonderdogs is pretty good,” Greenstein agreed. “I would say that all ties back to the customer service aspect.”
Greenstein was present at the Hall of Fame Induction last April. “I was there with another member of the Club. It was really great, and we got to see the people from Vienna present Jay with a plaque and a book about hot dog culture. They had a really nice speech about his life trajectory and how he came to own Wonderdogs.”
“It makes me happy,” Feiz said of his job. “When a customer promises to come back, or says the food was delicious, I really enjoy that.”
• The Italian Beef and Fries – Jay Feiz, owner
• The Grilled Chicken Sandwich and a Hot Dog – David Greenstein, The Hot Dog Club
All photos by Eric Ponder.