Chris’ Hot Dogs makes history

“People always ask us the secret to being in business for 100 years,” said Gus Katechis. “I always tell them, you just gotta be here. You’ve got to be here every day.”

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Theo and Gus Katechis, father and son owners of Chris’ Hot Dogs

It’s a motto that Gus Katechis and his father, Theo, certainly live out; there’s rarely a day you don’t see both of them behind the counter at Chris’ Hot Dogs. The father and son are the second and third generation to run the family business. Theo’s father, Christopher Anastasios “Chris” Katechis, for whom the business is named, immigrated to the United States from a small island in Greece and opened up his hot dog business on May 1, 1917.

Nearly one hundred years later, Chris’ Hot Dogs remains in its original location – 138 Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, just three blocks from Alabama’s State Capitol. The location has not only afforded the restaurant and the Katechis family a front row seat to history – they’ve also provided a seat or two to the history-makers themselves.

THE FAMILY RECIPE
Theo never planned to officially join the family business. Growing up, he was one of five children, “So, we all worked here quite a bit,” he said. In fact, he doesn’t recall his father ever closing the business, except for Christmas Day.

“The running joke was trying to find where we put the front doors,” Theo remembers. “We were open seven days a week, so there was no need to close the doors. We just took them off. Every Christmas, we’d sit down and try to remember where we put them last year.”

As Theo got older, he started working on his family’s farm and planned on doing that full time.

“I found out that I was starving as a farmer,” Theo said with a laugh. “So, the plan was to go work for the family business for a few years, and then I was going to get the farm going. And, here I am, still.”

But the reality was, his help was needed. Theo’s mother had passed away, and his father was in his late 70s by then. For his son, Gus, the story is much the same. After graduating with a degree in fisheries science at Auburn University, Gus worked for a few years in Northwest Florida. It wasn’t long before he felt the call to come back home.

“It was six years ago,” Gus said. “Dad was 65, and the way everything is now, computers are a necessity. Dad had trouble turning on his flip phone,” he said. “It was time. And I have loved every second of it. You never know who’s going to walk through the doors. We serve everyone from the governor to everyday, local folks. And that’s the way it’s always been.”

HOT DOGS AND HISTORY
When Chris’ Hot Dogs first opened in 1917, the restaurant offered curb service and did so for about 25 years. At that time, Gus explains, more and more people began driving cars, and the service began disrupting the traffic flow in the area, so they had to stop. By the 1960s, Chris’ Hot Dogs found itself in the center of American history, most notably the march towards civil rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached a couple blocks away at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was a frequent customer at Chris’ Hot Dogs.

“Blacks weren’t allowed to eat in the restaurant then. But, they were allowed to come in through the front door. That was a big deal at the time,” said Gus.dsc_3131-proofs

“We’re so thankful times are different now, but my dad remembers Martin Luther King coming in every Sunday to pick up the papers,” said Gus. “My grandad was an immigrant, so they’d talk about the things they were facing those days.”

Over the years, the restaurant has served many other notable guests – including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, Oprah Winfrey and Hank Williams, who was known to be a regular.

“There’s a story that he first wrote Hey Good Lookin’ on a napkin here at Chris’,” Gus said.

KEEPING TRADITION
“I remember when all the businesses started leaving downtown in the ‘70s,” said Theo. “People would say, the only thing still down there is Chris’ Hot Dogs and the State Capitol. It got pretty bad.”

Despite the great downtown exodus, as Theo calls it, the restaurant persevered, serving up the same famous hot dogs and hamburgers.

“Everybody left, and we just kept on doing things the way we always had, down to the way we shaped the burgers,” remembers Theo.

dsc_3123-proofsOnce, Theo recalls using something similar to a cookie cutter to make the patties perfectly round. “People didn’t like them even though we used the same meat and same recipe,” added Gus. “The patties just didn’t look like they were made by hand. So, we had to quit that.”

In fact, Gus explains, they have problems making any kind of change.

“We can’t even paint the place or our customers get upset. And that’s who pays our bills, so we have to keep them happy. You listen to what they say. We try to make small changes and see how it goes.”

Both Gus and Theo attribute that commitment to keeping it “just like it always has been” to their ability to attract generations of Chris’ Hot Dog lovers. “It’s like stepping back in time,” Theo added.

“We are really excited to see retail starting to come back downtown and more people living down here,” said Gus. “We tell people we survived the great exodus, and now we’re still here when everyone is coming back. We’re looking forward to the future of Montgomery.”

STAYING FRESH
As the restaurant’s hundredth year of business approaches, Chris’ Hot Dogs is preparing for a huge celebration. While plans aren’t nailed down just yet, Gus says it will be a memorable experience.

“Our customers have taken care of us for the last 100 years, and we want to give back to them,” Gus adds.

As they look toward the future, Gus and Theo say the plan is to keep on keeping on – and continue to serve up the now famous recipe that’s nearly a century old.

THE ESSENTIALS
Founded: May 1, 1917
Number of Employees: 12
Mentor: Our fathers
Smart Move: Bringing the business into the 21st century. Credit card machines, websites and social media are a must in business today.
Learning Moment: Becoming more than a place people come to eat. Be personable. Get to know your customers.
Treat everyone with respect, from the guy scraping up change to the rich guy.
Wisdom Shared: Never say, “I can’t,” and never become complacent. Learn something every day.

    dsc_3130-proofs Chris’ Hot Dogs at at 138 Dexter Avenue is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Visit online at chrishotdogs.com.

Story by Melissa Johnson Warnke

Photos by Brandon Robbins

This article is the cover story of the February 2017 Alabama Retailer.