Don't go into the hot dog business, Will Amarantos' grandfather warned him before the older man died last year.
"You'll work more hours than you ever have before," said his grandfather, who had opened a hot dog stand in Chicago in the 1970s.
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The 24-year-old proprietor of Will's Hot Dog Palace in Carol Stream didn't take his grandfather's advice.
"I love what I do and I want to follow in grandpa's footsteps," says Amarantos, who has a photo of his grandfather on the wall in his restaurant at 383 N. Gary Ave. "I've worked in the food industry since I was 13. It's all I've ever done. I have a passion for it."
The restaurant represents a second chance for Amarantos, who freely shares the story of how he was hooked on drugs and alcohol for 11 years before becoming sober 2½ years ago. He now puts the same energy he used to feed his addiction into running the hot dog stand he opened in December.
The restaurant already has gained loyal regulars among workers in the industrial area behind the shop and among Carol Stream and Wheaton residents, who come in for fresh food and good-natured joshing with the owner.
"I'm a lot more loud and boisterous than most business owners," Amarantos admits.
"He has the best food around here," says William Cotton of Carol Stream, who lives across the street from the restaurant.
Amarantos estimates he spends 65 to 70 hours a week in the shop, serving up dogs, burgers, Italian beef and other fare along with hand-cut french fries and onion rings. He puts in another 15 to 20 hours a week going to the meat market on Chicago's Randolph Street and keeping the books.
Addict to owner
Amarantos doesn't mind the hours and he's proving wrong those who said he would never amount to anything. As he tells the story, he grew up in a perfectly normal family with sober parents on Chicago North Shore. He's not sure how he got into drugs and alcohol at such a young age except he did it with friends as they had opportunity. His use escalated in high school, but his transfer to a strict, prep boarding school kept it in check. He graduated 36th in a class of 36.
By the time Amarantos was in and out of several colleges, it became apparent he had a problem.
"I was never expelled from a college," he says. "I was just asked not to return."
A cross country runner, he recalls competing in one race in which he missed making the national cut by 3/10th of a second.
"I would have been a national college runner had I been sober that day," he says. "That was a really eye-opening experience for me."
He participated in several treatment programs, making his first attempt to get sober in November 2007.
"I attempted and failed miserably for 3½ years," he recalls. "I couldn't string together more than a couple of days."
But by January 2011, he was tired of the life he led and ready to come clean. He had been in hot water with the law, his family and every school he attended.
"I repeatedly would get in trouble. I wasn't happy. I was miserable," he remembers.
Making it his goal to own his own hot dog business, he worked for two years at an assortment of low-level jobs and saved his money to make his dream come true. But he hadn't finished with college until last fall when a friend pointed out how unhappy he was in school.
"Drop out of school and do what's going to put a smile on your face," his friend told him.
Amarantos did, contacted Vienna Beef and closed on the Carol Stream hot dog stand six weeks later. "I bought it for myself for my second year sobriety gift," he says.
His family, which had waited for him to hit bottom, pitched in. His parents each help in the shop one day a week and his older brother, Tom, drops in to help whenever he can.
"He's working his tail off and I'll help him any way I can," Tom Amarantos said. "That's what I enjoy most -- to see him learning and make a success for himself."
Amarantos said he also has reconciled with his sister, who lives in San Francisco.
"I've never been prouder to be able to say that I have my family back in my life," he says.
Amarantos says he also has God in his life, something he didn't have when he grew up a nonbeliever in a Greek Orthodox family. He already had started on the road to sobriety when he had to go to court for some trouble he'd gotten in. He called an older friend from a spiritually based recovery group and asked what to do. "Let God walk in first," the friend told him.
Unsatisfied with the answer, Amarantos called two more buddies who told him the same thing. "You can walk in first," Amarantos recalls saying out loud to God.
"Thank you," said the man behind him.
Amarantos stuck his arm out to bar the man's way. "Not you, God," he said.
When he came before the judge, he was told the evidence couldn't be used against him.
"Ever since that day I believed in God," he says.
Amarantos has taken his new faith seriously. He closes the shop early two days a week to make it to Bible studies, continues to attend spiritually based recovery groups, reserves Sunday for church and family, and doesn't hang out with people who would bring him down. He says he begins each day with a prayer that God help him stay sober and ends the day with thanksgiving for mission accomplished.
"I am still actively in recovery," he says. "The temptation is always there."
But he's learned to handle it -- calling a friend or family member when the desire to drink or smoke pot comes or by diverting his mind with a mental activity. Amarantos has even learned to be glad he has the weakness because now he's ready to help others who might be tempted. He's hired one employee who's also in recovery, and is open about his past with teens.
"I believe in second chances because my life is a second chance," he says. "I was given that second chance by God."
Reveling in his new life, Amarantos prides himself on the freshness of the food he prepares each day, the cleanliness of the restaurant, and the goodwill his customers show toward one another.
"It's a very diverse crowd that comes through here. I love the diversity," he says.
He would like to open eight to 10 hot dog stands in DuPage County, and if he could spread nationwide that would be great, Amarantos says.
"Every day is a different experience and that's what I like about the food industry," he says. "I get to be in my own skin and be happy."