Long before Guy Fieri was a famous chef and restaurateur — and a ubiquitous, bleach-blonde presence on television — he was just a 10-year-old kid taking one of his first trips to "Flavortown" with a hot pretzel covered in salt and mustard.
In fact, the star of Food Network shows like "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" — who has also opened dozens of his own restaurants around the world — first found success in the food business selling pretzels out of a cart he built with his dad when he was 10 years old in his hometown of Ferndale, California.
The young Fieri had been struck by entrepreneurial inspiration at that same age while on a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where he ate his first soft pretzel, which he bought from a vendor in the ski lodge where his family was vacationing.
"This guy [pretzel guy] steams it and he dips it in a little bit of salt and he put mustard on it, and I always loved flavors like that when I was a kid," Fieri said in a 2017 interview with "The Sporkful" podcast. The future chef had never eaten a hot, soft pretzel before and he was instantly entranced.
"I ate one and the doughiness and the chewiness … I'd never seen anything like that," he said in 2017.
After Fieri told his parents about his discovery, his father suggested turning his newfound passion into a business. (Fieri notes in another interview with Susan Noyes, of the Make It Better Foundation, that his father had previously ended Fieri's attempts at selling lemonade and Kool-Aid after catching him "with a big purple arm" he obtained by stirring the beverage with his hands after losing his stirring stick.)
"My dad says, 'If you're such a fan of these pretzels, why don't you own a pretzel business when we get back home?'" Fieri told Variety in a recent interview.
Before he could do that, though, 10-year-old Fieri wanted to find out the name of the supplier where the ski lodge vendor was getting his pretzels. However, the vendor was cagey about supplying the young Fieri with the address of his manufacturer, apparently out of fear of aiding a future competitor.
"'Why do you want to get the address?'" Fieri told Variety the vendor asked him. "'So you can start a pretzel business?' I said, 'How'd you know?' He goes, 'I'm not giving them to you.' I said, 'I'm a kid!'"
At first, Fieri says he felt "completely defeated" by that roadblock. But he refused to give up and instead got creative. After waiting for the pretzel vendor to shut down for the day, Fieri went through his garbage to find a pretzel box with the distributor's name and address.
From there, Fieri says he returned home to Northern California and for six months worked after school building a pretzel cart in a family friend's woodworking shop. "My dad made me do all of the work," Fieri told Noyes in 2011.
The final product was a yellow wooden cart mounted on a three-wheeled bicycle that the young Fieri could ride to local fairs and other public events to sell pretzels. He called his business the "Awesome Pretzel Cart".
Fieri continued to run his pretzel cart through his high school years, while also working side jobs like washing dishes in local restaurants, according to his personal website. By the time he was 15 years old, Fieri had saved enough money to cover the costs of pursuing his dream to spend a year living and studying abroad in France.
The teenaged Fieri spent a year living with a host family as an exchange student in Chantilly, France, where he fell in love with food culture even more by frequenting local boulangeries and markets, he told Eater in 2018. "The click went off, and I said, 'That's it, I'm a food person,'" he told Eater. It was at that point that he realized: "I want to own my own restaurant."
In 1996, Fieri opened his first restaurant at the age of 28, called Johnny Garlic's, with business-partner Steve Gruber. That restaurant spawned a chain of eateries, as well as a sister chain of Tex Wasabi restaurants. Fieri sold his stake in those restaurants to Gruber in 2015, and most locations subsequently closed.
Today, Fieri is focused on operating his portfolio of restaurants, such as Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen & Bar in Nevada and Guy Fieri's Chophouse in Atlantic City. He also owns restaurants located on Carnival Cruise's line of ships. And he's hosted multiple TV shows on the Food Network since 2006, including more than 380 episodes of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fieri's restaurants across the U.S. have temporarily closed, while Carnival has cancelled all cruises through May 11.
But Fieri has even used his fame to try to help out a restaurant community that is struggling after many businesses were forced to close their doors, or severely cut operating hours, due to restrictions stemming from the pandemic. Fieri is the face of the recently-launched "Restaurant Relief America" campaign that aims to raise money to provide financial relief to restaurant workers across the country.
Still, Fieri is quick to point to his childhood pretzel cart as the first step on his path to becoming a successful restaurateur.
"I really attribute a tremendous amount of how I got to where I am from having the pretzel cart," he said in 2011.
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