Richie Vaia’s journey from hot dog cart operator to successful restaurateur in Chandler includes a detour caused by a collision with a semi-truck.
“I went back to Chicago, we did our last run, I turned around and came right back home and got all the way to Albuquerque in a construction zone,” Vaia said. “A semi came flying over the hill and totally wiped out all my personal belongings, all my equipment, my truck. Everything got wiped out. I was down to nothing.”
Until that moment, Vaia had been building his new life selling a bit of Chicago to former residents of that city who missed home. He started out selling hot dogs out of a cart at the Home Depot until they chased him away.
“It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?”
He upgraded from that to a food truck with a long-term plan to eventually open a brick-and-mortar restaurant that he figured was a few years away and now owns Richie V’s Chicago Eatery at 4975 S. Alma School Road, Chandler.
After losing his Home Depot lot spot, Vaia returned to Chicago to pick up his belongings and new supplies for his business. Along the way to Chicago, he stopped often to do some charity work.
“I had to go back to Chicago to pick up my belongings,” Vaia said. “I had them all in storage because I didn’t know if I was going to stay out here. So I said what a good idea if I get some sponsors … and I can feed the homeless and battered women across America on the way back, make some noise, bring some awareness. The turnout was fantastic at every stop I did. There were over 1,500 people along the way.”
Before deciding to move to Arizona, Vaia worked in the entertainment industry, working on shows like “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD,” and “Shameless.” He said he did lighting, special effects and rigging, calling it the “best job in the world.”
Then the pandemic began and production stopped as the entertainment world tried to figure out how to keep going. Vaia said he always thought the best way to spread happiness was through their stomachs.
He had some experience in running a food cart and restaurant. When he arrived in Arizona he started by trying to sell pizzas. Vaia said it wasn’t until he switched to Chicago food that he realized he found his niche.
He said it seems the Sun Lakes area is filled with Chicago natives. He imports his food directly from Chicago to keep it authentic. It’s been such a hit, he has regular customers from as far away as Yuma.
“I got one guy that comes up twice a week from Tucson,” Vaia said.
The menu is not extensive. It features Chicago hot dogs, Italian beef, Italian sausage and a supreme tamale. Add in fries, Italian ice and beverages, and that’s about it.
And that is exactly what his customers are looking for, authentic Chicago comfort food in South Chandler.
He was able to open up the restaurant at the corner of Alma School and Chandler Heights with the help of his business partner, John Hornacek, brother of the former Suns player and coach.
It’s been such a success Vaia said he’s already thinking expansion.
“We’re looking toward the Queen Creek area or Maricopa, those are my two choices,” Vaia said. “Absolutely by March, we’ll have another one up and running, 100%.”
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