Saturday, August 5, 2017

Greek American -- A Centennial Marker Unveiled for Chris' Hot Dogs -


THE LONG STAND:
A CENTENNIAL MARKER UNVEILED FOR CHRIS' HOT DOGS
Published in The National Herald, July 22-28, 2017 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer
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I am excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 

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On May 2, Chris' Hot Dogs of Montgomery AL was the location for a series of the celebrations surrounding the unveiling of a centennial historical marker. Erected by the state of Alabama this marker reads:

“Greek immigrant Christopher Anastasios Katechis opened Chris' Hot Dogs on May 1, 1917, at 138 Dexter Avenue. Until the 1960s, Chris' offered curb service for its hot dogs, leading to long lines of cars cued for service. The hot dogs featured Chris' “secret” chili sauce, known only to a few family members and shipped all over the world.

Chris' served millions of customers during its first ten decades, ranging from local regulars and Alabama governors to four American Presidents. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt often ordered boxes of hot dogs when his train traveled through Montgomery. President Harry Truman, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush ate at Chris' while visiting.

Other customers ranged from former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace to civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. County singer Hank Williams was a regular. Elvis Presley ordered Chris' Hot Dogs before a Garret Coliseum concert. 

The founder's son, Theo and grandson Costa (Gus) celebrated a century of serving the city its favorite hot dogs in 2017.”

The oldest family-owned restaurant in Montgomery, Chris' long ago stopped being just a local business and is now part of the very self-identity of this community. Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange was one of the officials at the marker's unveiling. Mayor Strange presented the Katechis family with a proclamation plaque mounted on reclaimed teak wood from the original USS Montgomery (Montgomery Advertiser (hereafter MA) May 2, 2017. In a prepared statement the mayor said, in part: “Theo, Gus, and staff are excellent representatives and model citizens of Montgomery and the River Region. We are honored to join them in celebrating 100 years of service to not only the citizens of Montgomery- --but also the citizens of the world.”

Theo Katechis was emotional when he was asked his response to this recognition: “This is all for my dad, who learned how to make Chris' famous secret sauce when he was 14 years old. I'm getting a little emotional about it, but it's for the Greek community, too. There used to be so many fine Greek restaurants in Downtown Montgomery, and there's not many left anymore. There's Charles Anthony and the Pub left. Mr. Gus (Ristorante) is left. A little, old hot dog stand is the only one left (downtown). It's kind of sad. But it's also unique too...It's too overwhelming for me to express my feelings. Thank you very much.” 

Exploring Katechis.

All across the United States, similar ceremonies have and are taking place to note the long term enduring contributions of Greek-Americans to the nation – even if not in every state, as yet. And so with this new Montgomery historic marker we must explore, if only in passing, who was Christopher Anastasios Katechis and what has his family done?

In early 1917, Christopher Katechis immigrated to Montgomery from Erikousa, a tiny Ionian island just northwest of Corfu. His first job was as a busboy in a cafe in Birmingham. In 1923, Katechis joined his uncle Orphanus Katechi in Montgomery. Not long after, young Katechis opened a fruit and vegetable stand at the 138 Dexter Avenue location. Given that this site was next door to the old post office, the Greek's stand soon became known, aptly enough, as The Post Office Fruit Stand. Published accounts do not report on the nature of the business relationships between uncle and nephew. But it is widely reported that sometime in the 1930s, Katechis bought out whatever business interests his uncle had and renamed the location, Chris' Hot Dogs.

When Katechis arrived in the United States he was struck by the taste of a Polish sausage he enjoyed at New York City's Coney Island. Once in Montgomery, Katechis was convinced such new, and for the period, “trendy” hot dogs might well be popular. Through trial and error, Katechis perfected his special “secret” chili sauce topping for his hot dogs. All of Chris' hot dogs come with mustard, onion, sauerkraut and chili sauce. It is said that the secret sauce that covers the hot dogs is the reason for this sustained success. Today, only three people, all family members, know this recipe. As a means of gauging its enduring popularity aside from the steady business in Montgomery for 100 years now, orders from such faraway places as Australia, Alaska, Germany and elsewhere are not uncommon.

At some point, there were waitresses/servers going out to the cars to gather and deliver the orders. Still the line of waiting cars often proved so long they often stopped traffic. As the story goes “Chris' Hot Dog Stand hasn't changed since the 1940s...when a dining room [was added] because the city made him stop curb service---it was creating traffic jams (MA December 28, 1958).” 

Chris' Hot Dogs has long attracted every manner of celebrity. Politicians, sports figures, notable musicians and movie stars such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Tallulah Bankhead, Whoopi Goldberg, and many others. I was surprised that Rosa Parks' name was not added to the historical marker since she was often a customer at Chris'. This says nothing about the “regular” customers as in the case of the State Legislature who still sends pages down to the Dexter Avenue store to pick up boxes of hot dogs when they are in session

Hank Williams, who lived in Montgomery between 1937 and 1947, was a frequent customer. These were the years when Chris' never closed day or night except on Christmas Day. During this period, various tales contend that Williams was on occasion so rowdy he was made to leave. Another, series of tales focus on the widely claimed witnessing of Williams writing on napkins while in Chris'. This habit has led to the claim that Williams first wrote the lyrics for “Hey, Good Lookin'” on just such a napkin. While not impossible, music sources cite 1951 as the year Williams wrote and recorded this song. In 2001, “Hey, Good Lookin'” was inducted into the Grammy Hall Fame.

For those who follow GreekAmerican history closely, this is not the first extremely popular American song ever composed in a Greek-owned restaurant. In 1927, Hoagy Carmichael (1899- 1981) is said to have composed the music for what was to become “Star Dust” on the house piano at the Booknook, a Greekowned restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana. The logical question is, were there other notable Americans songs written in any other Greek-owned restaurants, nightclubs or diners? 

Another common feature of such successful Greek hot dog stands, diners, grills and restaurants is the presence of longtime employees. In the case of Chris', Eleanor Williams, better known as “E” and Voncille McWilliams both worked at Chris for 40-plus years and Grace Price, in the articles I have read, worked there 30 some years.

In 1961, Costas joined the family business. This was during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and the fabled March on Montgomery. As Gus recalls of that time: “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.” In those years. Martin Luther King used to come into Chris' every Saturday to get the newspaper. 

Chris Katechis died on December 26, 1988 and Theo soon took over the business. Since that time, the largest hot dog order (to date) was 2,600 hot dogs for the commissioning of the USS Montgomery on September 10, 2016 in Mobile. The previous record was 2,000 hot dogs for the 1963 campaign rally of George Wallace.