BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — More than three days, less than a week.
That’s how George Sarris remembers how long he was in Birmingham before he had his first hot dog. Fifty years later, he can still taste it.
Sarris, who has owned the Fish Market on Southside since 1983, was 17 years old when he left Greece to work with his mother and sisters in Birmingham, working in different restaurants and making enough money to send back to family back home.
During his first week in town, a friend took Sarris downtown to Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, a restaurant 20 feet long and seven feet wide on Second Avenue North. Behind the counter was Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis, who had been running the restaurant for over 20 years at that point.
Before that day, Sarris didn’t know what a hot dog was. After a trip to Pete’s Famous, he never forgot.
“With me, the taste, was nothing like I had ever had before,” said Sarris, remembering the secret sauce that made Pete’s Famous a must in town.
It’s a taste Wright Thompson knew well. Thompson, a senior writer at ESPN and author of “Pappyland,” was driving to Augusta, Georgia years ago to cover the Masters Tournament when he stopped at Pete’s Famous. Years of leaning over the grill had caused Koutroulakis’ back to hunch over, but the way he made hot dogs never changed.
“You just realized that this is something incredibly rare, special, and particularly American,” Thompson said.
On April 5, 2011, the 81-year-old Koutroulakis died from a heart attack, taking the recipe to his secret sauce and years of memories with him. Not long after, Pete’s Famous closed its doors, ending a Birmingham staple that had stood along Second Avenue North for decades.
‘That was his life’
The story of Pete’s Famous began with family. Koutroulakis’ father, George, left his home in Sykea, Greece when he was 13 to come to Alabama, learned English and worked his way into owning his own wholesale fruit business on Morris Avenue.
Koutroulakis, who grew up on Norwood Circle and graduated from Phillips High School, would work some days with his father and then walk down Second Avenue North to help his uncle, Pete, at his hot dog stand.
The story goes that in 1939, Pete Koutroulakis won $300 in a game of Pinochle and used it, along with another $300 from a business partner, to buy Louis’s Place, a small hole-in-the-wall that had been open since before WWI. Eventually, Pete bought out his partner, renamed the restaurant as Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs and put up a neon sign for $500 that would remain over the establishment for over 70 years.
On January 18, 1948, Gus’ life changed forever when Pete decided to take a trip back to Greece to visit family, leaving Gus to run the restaurant in his place. Not long afterward, Pete had a heart attack and his father told Gus to take over for good.
“You know, when your parents tell you something, well you didn’t—you didn’t have to write you a thesis about it,” Koutroulakis told the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2004.
What started as a way for Gus to cover for his uncle on a part-time basis turned into a passion he stretched for over 60 years, becoming a popular spot in Birmingham, a place people knew they could go for something special, complete with a Grapico and a bag of chips.
With the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and two rare trips he took to Greece, Koutroulakis worked every day. For years, he would go from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. That changed in 1986, when he married his wife, Kathy, and cut down his hours from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“That was his life,” niece Gina Caplan said. “He was getting up, getting ready to go the hot dog stand.”
Koutroulakis’ constant presence at the restaurant made Pete’s Famous an institution, where he was commonly called “The Mayor of Second Avenue.”
“Even if it was a small place with small people, he always had the personality,” Sarris said. “The first time you met him, you remembered him.”
There were never any tables or chairs at Pete’s Famous with many customers opting to eat inside. Koutroulakis always felt like that was the appeal of the restaurant.
“I mean, you can take a hot dog and wrap it up and put it in a sack, and go out there and eat it. It doesn’t taste the same as it does when it’s in here,” Koutroulakis told SFA. “This preacher said it’s something in these walls that, you know—that makes it taste like that. And that’s true.”
Despite the accolades—one being recognition from the Birmingham City Council—Koutroulakis remained humble.
“To him, it was just what he felt like he was supposed to do,” said Lula Christ, Koutroulakis’ sister.
Christ said that even though he was 13 years older than her, Koutroulakis was very involved in her life, acting as her protector when they were children and her brother as adults.
“He was my angel,” Christ said.
Christ said that to Koutroulakis, everyone he came across was important to him and he would give the shirt off his back to help someone else.
“He remembered everyone’s order,” she said. “You could be out for months and he would still remember your order.”
Many people wanted to get in on Gus’ success over the years. There were offers to open franchises. There were offers to sell and distribute his sauce. He turned them all down.
“When you have a franchise of any business, you have to be over all your businesses,” Christ said. “He always said ‘They can rob you blind. so I’m going to cut a trail and make it the best.”
By Koutroulakis’ own account, the secret sauce for a Pete’s Famous hot dog had about 15 different ingredients. He never made it at the restaurant, but made it at home. Family say only he and their uncle Pete knew the recipe.
“When he died, he wanted it to go with him,” Christ said.
Douglas Houghton, who worked with Koutroulakis from 2007 to 2011, said he’s tried many imitations of the sauce. By his estimate, most have failed.
“Anyone who knows anything about cooking knows if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s not going to taste good,” Houghton said.
Sarris said that for as much as Gus worked, money could not have been what kept him going.
“When you see someone 80 years old and they still do it, it’s not for the money,” he said. “It’s because they like it.”
Houghton said the “Mayor of Second Avenue” was the best boss he ever had. Gus would often let him come and leave an hour early so he could go to class at ITT Tech. He even cosigned Houghton’s apartment lease.
“If you went to Pete’s and you got to talking to him, you got to know Gus,” Houghton said. “If you talked to him, he would talk. If you were hungry, he would feed you.”
To those who knew Gus, the hardest year was the last year. Before he died, he was already going through his own health problem and had just had back surgery. He was also caring for his wife, who was just then suffering from dementia.
Nonetheless, he kept on going.
“He was deathly afraid of losing his mind by retiring and sitting at home,” Houghton said.
With no one stepping up to keep the restaurant running following Koutroulakis’ death, Pete’s Famous closed for good in 2011. Today, little remains of the Birmingham staple. The space has been hollowed out and the ceiling is gone, but the last remnant is “Pete’s Famous” scrawled on the door. Even the iconic “Pete’s Famous” neon sign was taken away and is now in storage at Vulcan Park & Museum.
‘He was his own magic’
Thompson went to Pete’s Famous several times before it closed. He would go on to remember Gus and the end of an era in a Grantland piece, where he mourned the loss of small-town food staples like Pete’s Famous that were slowly disappearing across the country.
Looking back, Thompson wonders if places like Pete’s Famous and people like Gus still have the same staying power in an era that celebrates sameness.
“It just feels like so much of culture is a mile wide and an inch deep when it used to be really deep,” Thompson said. “There’s not a lot of room for microclimates anymore.”
Sarris believes that the popularity of Pete’s Famous inspired many others to start their own hot dog stands in town, with as many as 50 hot dog stands across town at one point to his recollection. Through it all, Sarris said Koutroulakis was someone that many in the community looked up to.
“He was his own magic,” he said.
Sarris went on to have his own culinary success in Birmingham with several restaurants—even his own hot dog stand at one point—but he still loved going to Pete’s Famous to see Gus, taking clients from around the world to visit the Birmingham institution.
Sarris said he strives to be like Gus in many ways. Like Gus, Sarris has no plans of retiring and plans to do what he loves for as long as he can.
“I just want to be sitting in a chair and let the good Lord take me,” he said.
Thompson feels places like the Bright Star in Bessemer or people like Nick Pihakis, who started Jim ‘N Nick’s and has had a hand in starting many other local restaurants across Birmingham, are still carrying on the same tradition Koutroulakis once championed.
“As long as there are people who are like that, some part of Gus and all those people who came to Birmingham are still alive,” he said.
Houghton, who now works at the U.S. Postal Service, said he has a lot of good memories from Pete’s Famous. It’s where he met his wife. It’s where he got to know Gus. That’s what he holds onto.
“What he left was memories,” he said. “He didn’t leave a legacy. He didn’t want a legacy being left. The only thing he left behind was a legend. Until he had passed, he was a living legend.”
People across Birmingham are still keeping memories of Koutroulaksi alive. On Facebook, a “Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs” group has over 230 members with countless memories and stories posted. A booth at Niki’s West is also dedicated to him.
To those who continue to feel a connection to Koutroulakis and a piece of lost Birmingham history, continuing to tell the story keeps the memories alive.
“He was God’s gift to Birmingham,” Sarris said.