Anyone visiting the Placentia area on a weekday is hard-pressed to miss Ray and Jake Griffiths at the Wiener Wagon.
Set up next to mascot Big Willy, a giant inflatable hotdog, the father-son duo spends their days, alternating between Placentia and neighbouring Argentia, selling hotdogs, fries and more at their food cart.
What sounds like a normal business venture is much more to the pair — it’s a way of helping Jake, who has Asperger’s syndrome, train his social skills while having meaningful employment.
“He was finding it difficult to find work,” said father Ray Griffiths.
“I seen this cart for sale up in Stanhope and I said to him … ‘Maybe we can get it for a half decent price and then you can become your own boss.’ And that’s what happened.”
That was in January 2020. Four months later, the Wiener Wagon opened for business.
For Jake, cooking has not just always been a part of his relationship with his father; he also received his cooking diploma from Academy Canada in 2019.
“For as long as I can remember, me and Dad, we usually did a lot of baking experiments when I was but a young kid. We would make cupcakes, we baked bread, we made … pigs in a blanket,” he said.
“At first, I thought maybe [I’d] just become a pastry chef. But then I decided, why stick with the one thing when you could just do both? So I took the cooking class, I graduated and here we are. It’s not as fancy as those other restaurants but I like to think it’s good for me.”
Even though the decision to buy the cart, said Ray, was made right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many businesses across the province, father and son decided to open anyway — a leap of faith that worked out, as their business was set up perfectly for physical distancing.
“People would stop by the road, honk their horn, put in their order. We’d bring it out to their car, they’d pay through just slipping the money into the window,” said Ray. “We had a phenomenal year. And it just took off from there.”
“We’ve been getting more and more events. And honestly, I’m astounded by how big this has become,” Jake added.
Now more and more events knock on the door, and the Wiener Wagon is booked out for weekends until the end of September.
As Jake requires help in some areas, Ray had hired a coach through Genesis, a company that helps people with disabilities find employment, for some past events. This summer though, he decided to take time off work to join Jake himself.
“This way, he could be his own boss. He can do his own thing and he’s got someone there to guide him and keep him on track,” said Ray.
“He struggles in some areas but … speaking is not one of them. And he’s a good cook.”
For Jake, the hotdog cart isn’t his first business — at the age of 12, he started a jewelry business, selling his products at markets with the goal of improving his social skills.
The interactions with customers are now Jake’s favourite part of running the Wiener Wagon.
“I think it’s a pretty big achievement for me. I mean, I don’t consider myself a special little snowflake or anything. I consider myself the average Joe,” he said.
“But yeah, I think it’s pretty good. Get to exercise my skills and get to meet people and keeps me busy.”
Within the next three years, Ray plans on retiring and turning his full attention to the Wiener Wagon — with their sights set on adding a second cart.
“It’s hard to be in two places at once. Obviously, we can’t. And we’ve turned down some big jobs because of it, so there’s potential there for more,” said Ray.
“Then, I can get [Jake] a coach to go with him and I’ll venture off in another direction.”
It’s an opportunity Jake is grateful for.
“I just want to thank my dad for helping me out with this. He’s been a big help,” he said, his arm around his father’s shoulder.
“Life is short. Eat the Wiener,” he said.
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