If you took everything that is distinctive or notorious about Chicago — its sports teams, its Midwestern accents and sometimes sarcastic attitude, its Mafia-themed criminal past and its unique, flavorful foods — and then somehow mixed it all together inside a restaurant, you’d have the heady essence of WiseGuys, a Chicago eatery located on Valley Mills Drive in Waco’s Westview Village shopping center.
“If you took this restaurant and dropped it in Chicago, you’d never know it wasn’t supposed to be there,” said WiseGuys president and CEO Bill Nychay (pronounced Nuh-SHAY).
“I want the personality of this place to be Chicago — its music, its sights and smells, its taste and its feel.”
Nychay was born and raised in Chicago (no surprise there), where he said he was the black sheep of his family. While all his brothers attended prestigious universities, Nychay bypassed college to move to Los Angeles and pursue a lifelong passion for music. He eventually began playing drums in a rock band called Kicking K8 (“Kicking Kate”), which has opened for many major acts and released its debut CD in 2010.
At the same time Nychay was on the road touring eight months a year across the country with Kicking K8, his wife Dandy, a Killeen-area native, longed for the couple to move from California to Central Texas.
“I didn’t know much about Texas,” Bill Nychay admitted. “I thought it was all Farrah Fawcett and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
Nychay agreed to the move, and realized it gave him the opportunity to try out a business idea he’d had for some time — to open a restaurant with his wife that would introduce the authentic Chicago food he grew up with to new markets.
“My love is music, but the music business is up and down,” Nychay said. “You have to have something in your back pocket.”
Nychay put his music career on hold, drained his modest life savings and partnered with brother-in-law Jerry Dugger, a Harker Heights police officer, to open the first WiseGuys Chicago eatery in Harker Heights in February 2010.
The partners, who had never worked in the food industry before, were very surprised when the tiny restaurant became an instant success. Lines were soon out the door, and they routinely ran out of food before closing time.
To meet the growing demand, Nychay took on new partners and soon opened two more WiseGuys locations, both in Killeen. Then in November 2012, Nychay partnered with the Rev. Ramiro Peña, the senior pastor of Waco’s Christ the King Baptist Church, to open a WiseGuys location next to Pep Boys in Westview Village. Nychay licensed the Waco WiseGuys to Peña, who is the sole owner.
Nychay said while the Waco restaurant has been successful from the beginning, various logistical problems and economic considerations lead him to eventually close the three original Bell County stores. At this point, the only WiseGuys restaurant outside of Waco is a store in Lawton, Okla., that opened in November 2013.
Just what is it that has allowed WiseGuys to catch on so quickly? Nychay maintains that above all, the main ingredient is the quality and unique character of the food he serves.
“All of our food is cooked fresh to order. Nothing is staged. I don’t cook anything ahead of time,” Nychay said. “That means you get a fresher product that tastes better, but you’re going to have to wait for it. We say it’s fresh food made kind of fast –– not fast food.”
The biggest sellers at WiseGuys are the Philadelphia-style cheese steaks, now renamed “Chicago cheese steaks.” They’re served on the classic Philly-style buns supplied by the Amoroso Bakery in Philadelphia, and are stuffed with signature meats from Fontanini Italian Meats that are imported directly from Chicago.
“Probably seven out of 10 sandwiches we sell is a cheese steak,” Nychay said. “That’s how come we are now the biggest dealer for Amoroso (breads) outside of Philly. And we’re the biggest customer of Fontanini outside of Chicago.”
One of the most popular WiseGuys cheese steak options is named the Al Capone after the legendary Chicago mobster, and includes moist chicken grilled with sautéed onions, bell peppers and mushrooms, and topped with melted white American cheese.
Others among the eight cheese-steak choices include the Chicago Cheese Steak, which substitutes tender sirloin for the Al Capone’s chicken, the Frank Nitti, with tender sirloin and marinara mixed with veggies and cheese, and the Bonnie & Clyde, which is a link of authentic Italian sausage paired with the Chicago Cheese Steak. Cheese steaks range in price from $6.19 to $7.99
Nychay insists that his ingredients not be mere imitations of Chicago-style meats, cheeses and breads, despite the fact that he must charge a bit more for the real thing than fast food chains offering “Chicago eats” for less money.
“Everything we sell here is A-level food,” Nychay said. “We can cheapen it and make more money, but you know what? I think what keeps people coming back is the quality.”
The second major food group in the WiseGuys lineup is sandwiches, with at least nine varieties. The most popular sandwich is probably the Italian Beef, featuring seasoned roast beef topped with sweet bell peppers or hot giardanera (a spicy relish popular in Chicago).
Other sandwiches include varieties that feature Italian or Polish sausage as well as a four-meatball sandwich.
“The meatball sandwich is the best you’ll have,” said Waco radio personality Brother Reno, who was happily eating at WiseGuys the day we visited. “Everything on the menu is fantastic, but the meatball is my favorite.”
There’s also the Marilyn Monroe sandwich (grilled chicken with veggies, white American cheese and Italian dressing), a gyro with a combination of beef and lamb, and the Godfather, WiseGuy’s biggest sandwich, which combines a meatball sandwich with Italian sausage. Prices range from $5.39 to $7.99.
Are you catching on that WiseGuys caters mainly to carnivores? Nychay is proud to have hungry meat-eaters as his core customers, but said the restaurant has recently added a veggie wrap and some salad options.
What would a Chicago eatery be without a menu of classic Chicago hot dogs? WiseGuys features more than half a dozen variations, most selling for under $4 and all using Vienna beef wieners, served on steamed buns along with fries.
Oh yes — those WiseGuys fries. Nychay said they have proven almost as popular as his main courses because of their crispness and flavor.
“The potatoes are blanched, which means they’re double-cooked. We cook our hand-cut fries for about two minutes, take them out and drain the grease off, then put them in the refrigerator and let them get cold,” Nychay said. “Then, when you order we pull them out and cook them again. They’re the best fries you’re going to have. They’re crisper, but not (dry).”
The last major WiseGuys food group is burgers, which Nychay eventually added because — hey, this is Texas.
“This didn’t start off being a burger place, but I said, if we’re going to sell burgers, we’re going to make better burgers,” Nychay said. “So I get my burgers ground fresh from Waco Custom Meats — they’re delivered to us every morning.”
Burgers range in price from $4.99 to $8.29, depending on how much beef is involved.
Desserts include Italian gelato, cannoli and “gooey bars,” which are sweet butter cakes.
One food commonly associated with Chicago — pizza — has never been on the Waco WiseGuys menu. Nychay said that’s because when Peter Piper Pizza was in Westview Village, it had the exclusive right to sell pizza there. Now that Peter Piper has relocated, Nychay is making plans to install new ovens and serve pizza in the future.
WiseGuys customers order at the counter, then seat themselves at one of the many tables or booths. Their food is brought to them.
“It’s called fast casual dining — ordering at a counter and then sitting down,” Nychay said. “As opposed to full service where you’ve got to tip; you don’t have to tip us.”
But authentic Chicago food is only one part of the WiseGuys appeal. Atmosphere is a large part of why the restaurant’s large group of loyal customers come back repeatedly.
“We have a lot of regulars that are here on a daily basis, and we get to know their names,” said Barbara Klycek, a Chicago native who helps manage the Waco store. “We talk with them and find out that some of them are from Chicago. It’s fun — I love it.”
Nychay and his staff also take part in the time-honored Chicago custom of spreading a little attitude around.
“I try to rib the customers a little bit— give them a little bit of Chicago sarcasm,” said kitchen manager Paul Salapatas, yet another Chicago native. “We try to make it fun for people. (Our staff) has fun and laughs all day long, and we like to project that out to our customers.”
The fun atmosphere is helped along by the restaurant’s décor, which can only be described as a shrine to all things Chicagoan. Almost every square inch of wall space is covered with memorabilia tied to either the Windy City or the Mob. Jerseys and placards of Chicago sports teams are side by side with photos of 1950s crooners, front-page headlines from Chicago newspapers and what is surely the largest collection of Mafia-related photos and framed documents outside Illinois.
Also displayed are replicas of Chicago street signs, uniforms and patches from Chicago-area law enforcement agencies, and a nice collection of Baylor-related items to boot. Circling the entire perimeter, like a bow on a package, is hundreds of feet of bright yellow crime tape.
Big band music and classics from the American songbook make up WiseGuys’ dining soundtrack. And in the large back room is a stage where local and touring musicians perform from time to time. When local favorites such as crooner Bruce Carbonara or zydeco and blues guitarist Classie Ballou play at WiseGuys, there’s usually not an empty seat in the house.
“We want this to be an entertainment destination,” Nychay said, and adds that future plans include a larger stage and new stage lighting.
Other enhancements are on the drawing board. Nychay will soon install televisions around the restaurant, which will show sporting events and classic movies. As far as the WiseGuys empire goes, Nychay is still resisting offers to begin franchising the restaurants, but he is working with investing partners to open new locations.
The first WiseGuys in San Antonio is scheduled to open in March or April of this year, with four more San Antonio locations to follow. If the reception in San Antonio is good, Nychay said his investors want to go international with locations in Costa Rica.
“I never had a vision of just doing one store,” Nychay said. “My vision was always bigger.”
But for now, Nychay enjoys greeting his customers by name and making new converts to Chicago cuisine.
“I’ve already won,” he said. “I’ve beat the odds.”
WiseGuys — A Chicago Eatery
579-A Valley Mills Drive
Mon-Thu, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Fri-Sat, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sun, noon to 3 p.m.