If you smell grilling at South Tryon and Fourth streets, you will likely hear laughter too.
That’s Chili Man – tending to his hotdogs and his crowd.
He lifts the grill lid, picks up a steamed and browned hotdog with his tongs and lays it on a bed of griddle-fried cheese sizzling on a warmed bun. Spicy mustard goes on one side, taco sauce to the other, and chili, diced onions, and pickled jalapeno on top.
He calls it the “Life Changer.”
“If you come out, like I did, to become a legend – that’s the way I do things,” Chili Man said.
On stage, behind his grill, the 49-year-old wears his hat backwards over his ponytail. His skateboard rests against a fence nearby.
Waiting in line you’ll see everyone from bankers in crisp shirts to Jimmy John’s delivery guys in bike helmets and T-shirts. Some of them have been coming to Chili Man for the past 12 years, even though sometimes that can mean waiting 15 minutes in the 90-degree heat for a Life Changer, the “Heroin” or a vegetarian dog.
“For $4.25 I get a combo of a really good dog, chips and a drink I can’t beat,” said Julian Macri, a regular who works two blocks away at Bank of America.
And always on the side – Chili Man’s silly jokes.
To appreciate the Chili Man’s allure, you need to know Victor Werany.
A Middletown, N.Y. native, he moved to Charlotte in 1995 with his wife, Tara. He had worked as a comedian, chef, camp counselor, and bar manager before she came up with the street cart idea.
The new career would allow him to be home for their children after school and avoid being told “you are too loud” all the time – as almost every former boss did.
Chili Man was born.
Werany even had “Chili Man” tattooed on his upper back along with jalapenos, a tomato and some beans. He got a “CHILIMN!” plate for the Chevy truck he uses to pull the hotdog cart. (The cart was designed to sell chili, but to comply with health department regulations his chili is only used as a condiment.)
Tara Werany, a vice president at Bank of America, stands behind Chili Man, financially and spiritually. “Everything I do is because of my wife,” he said. “I don’t make a ton out here.”
As a father and husband, Chili Man makes breakfast, packs lunch, and has waited at the bus stop for his children and neighborhood kids every day since his son started school eight years ago. He is as well known in his University-area neighborhood as he is on Tryon Street.
In 2013, he started an annual fundraiser for neighbor, Gabe Ospina, a 5-year-old with spina bifida. Now the project also benefits two other families.
Like Gabe, Luke Rainwater, 5, has spina bifida. His mother, Christie Rainwater, considers Chili Man family. “He takes so much time, getting people and getting donations – just the whole nine yards. He’s our Superman.”
On Tryon Street, Chili Man is more likely to wear his Captain America shirt or one of his many hotdog shirts. He is like a kid himself and wants to stay that way.
Since 1992, he and his wife have been going to Disney World three or four times a year. They take their two children along sometimes, but go as a couple to recharge the magic.
“I think that’s why we stay young, because we like to have a good time and not just go out on a boat and drink,” Chili Man said. “We don’t have a boat.”
They used to watch their son skateboard. They’d sit on the sidelines talking about the weather. But soon Chili Man decided he could skateboard too. Then Tara, 46, bought her first skateboard.
His first day selling hotdogs, Chili Man made $44 – less than the cost of ingredients. But Tara encouraged him to hang on. Four months later, he finally felt accepted when he received an order from an elderly woman who had watched him since Day One to make sure his hotdogs were safe.
Now his customers jokingly complain the line is too long.
“I love it for Vic – he’s more popular now, but it makes our lives hard,” said customer Andy Carson, recalling that years ago it took only five minutes to get hotdogs and back to his office at Bank of America.
Chili Man takes a winter break starting in November. On March 14, the day he returned this year, some fans stood in line for an hour. Ben Phillips, who delivers for Jimmy John’s, ate eight hotdogs that day, including four he took home.
James Kay has been a regular since 2004 when he worked for Wachovia, now Wells Fargo.
“It’s never boring,” Kay said. “You think a hotdog would be, a hotdog. But he always adds something that makes it different.”
Besides the addictive-sounding staple items on the menu like the “Heroin,” Chili Man cooks up daily specials. Recent ones included a a chicken mozzarella sausage with kale and basil pesto on griddle-fried Parmesan cheese and a Greek dog with mild Italian sausage, homemade tzatziki sauce, cucumber, feta cheese, onion and Kalamata olive paste.
A hotdog costs $2.50, $3 with chili. The cart is out during weekday lunch hours, unless it’s over 100 degrees.
The Chili Man carries more than 15 sauces. His inventions include the Tropic Thunder, a mix of mango and Chipotle; the Merlo-B-Q, a wine-infused BBQ sauce, and Reaper Madness, the latest incarnation in Chili Man’s “Fluffy Bunny” spicy mustard series. He doesn’t want his customers to be afraid of spicy sauces.
“The onus is on me – because I make the best chili dogs, the best sauces, everything (else) has to be that good,” Chili Man said.
Chili Man remembers his regulars. When Fenil Shah gets in line Wednesdays for a vegetarian chili-dog, Chili Man begins heating up a special dog. When David Saunders, a South End resident, comes uptown for a hotdog, Chili Man greets him and Dexter, his Golden Retriever.
Chili Man’s business philosophy: “I can either get one more customer, or get that guy back one more time.”
Chili Man’s annual fundraiser: SHRED
SHRED (Skaters Helping Realize Extraordinary Dreams) started in 2013 to help Gabe Ospina’s family pay for the 5-year-old’s spina bifida treatments. The project now helps two more families with children with special needs.
Chili Man has already raised $10,000 since 2013. He aims to gather another $10,000 next year alone.
Throughout the year, he invites school kids, families and artists to join his family in painting skate decks. The decks and other donated items are auctioned at an annual art show. The event also features hotdogs, of course.
The next art show is Jan 30, 2016 at The Unknown Brewing Co.