Beloved Birmingham hot dog man Constantine 'Gus' Koutroulakis, dies at 81Published: Wednesday, April 06, 2011, 7:00 AM
The Birmingham News
A huge white bow hangs on the glass door at Pete's Famous Hot Dogs -- a slither of space on a once bustling Second Avenue North where hot dogs, cold drinks and conversation have been served up for decades.
Constantine Koutroulakis, simply known to most folk as Gus, was found dead Tuesday morning sitting in a chair at his Homewood home.
On Monday, just a day earlier, the 81-year-old Koutroulakis worked his typical shift from morning until night. For 63 years he had worked at the shop, often with his wife, Kathy, by his side.
Cars continued to roll up to the curb on Tuesday as devoted customers of Pete's Famous made their regular pilgrimage, many hearing for the first time that the legendary man behind the counter had died.
"It just kills me," said 53-year-old Rod Pringle, a Texas man who stopped in Birmingham Tuesday to take his son to Pete's, just as his own father had done for him 20 years ago.
"My grandfather passed away a year ago, and he talked about this his whole life," said Logan Pringle, 23. "My grandfather was a foodie, and you paid attention when he talked about something."
Earlier Tuesday morning, he had called family members and his housekeeper to say he was not feeling well. The housekeeper arrived at Koutroulakis' home and found him dead.
"He was one of a kind really," said Birmingham restaurateur George Sarris. "I think if you would have asked him how do you want to go, he would have said he wanted to die in the store or getting ready to go to work."
The Greek community will miss Koutroulakis, Sarris said. "He was just like a fixture," he said.
Robert Aland, Birmingham president of the National Bank of Commerce and this year's Operation New Birmingham chair, was raised eating at Pete's Famous.
"I grew up in Birmingham and for as long as I can remember, it was a treat to come downtown and eat at Pete's," Aland said. "When I got married, and then when my daughter came along, I made sure to share Pete's with them. I even have a painting of Pete's Famous hanging in my office. Gus is certainly going to be missed."
The legend began decades ago when Pete Koutroulakis in 1939 bought the tiny shop on Second Avenue North, a 7-foot-wide spot between a former saloon and a clothing store. According to an interview Gus Koutroulakis gave to Southern Foodways Alliance, his uncle paid $600 that he had won in a Pinochle game, changed the name to Pete's Famous Hot Dogs and put up the blue neon sign.
When his uncle was ill, Gus Koutroulakis went to work there to help him out. Later he took over the business, just out of Phillips High School in 1948.
From then on, he was open seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. He served his dogs grilled and covered with sauerkraut, onions, special sauce and a bit of mustard on a steamed bun. The special came with chili.
The majority of his customers washed down the famous dogs with a pint of milk or a Grapico.
His secret weapon, customers say, was the sauce flavored with a little bit of spice and always spread while it was steaming hot. It's what made his hot dogs among the best in town.
"Gosh, nobody knows his sauce recipe," longtime friend and customer, Birmingham businessman Joey McClure, said Tuesday as he stopped by the shop to mourn the loss. "He did everything here, but he made the sauce elsewhere and wouldn't tell anyone. He always said, 'When I'm gone, it's going with me.'"
The shop closed so rarely that when it did, it made the news, as was the case in 1995 when he took a three-week vacation to visit relatives in Greece. In 1998, he threatened to retire because his feet hurt. In 1999, then-Jefferson County Commissioner Mary Buckelew sponsored a resolution to honor him after word spread that he was retiring, which he didn't.
"I don't want to quit," Koutroulakis told The Birmingham News in 1998. "If you're not working, your brain goes bad. I've seen it happen."
He worked so long and hard, bent over the grill, that he was no longer able to stand up straight. "There was the shelf behind him which made him stoop," Sarris said. "I always told him to put it up higher but he said, 'Where am I going to put the bread?'"
Sarris said people often encouraged Koutroulakis to slow down and work less, but that wasn't who he was.
"That was his life. That's what made him tick. That's what got him up in the morning," he said.
Longtime customers marveled at how he never forgot their order, whether it had been months or weeks since they'd last been in the shop. "It didn't matter who you were, he always remembered," said 60-year-old Paul Maniscalco, who started eating two hotdogs all the way with a pint of milk at Pete's when he was a student at St. Paul's Catholic School.
"I'm heartbroken," Maniscalco said when he pulled up to the shop Tuesday, unaware of Koutroulakis' death.
Larry Cannon, 67, said he had frequented Pete's Famous Hot Dogs since the late 1960s. Once when serving on a federal jury, Cannon brought the entire jury to the cramped shop on lunch break. "They said, 'Where do you sit?' and I said, 'You don't.'"
Koutroulakis could be grumpy at times, coarse and impatient, but friends and customers say he had a deep love for people.
"Sometimes he was rough and gruff," Sarris said, "but he was a teddy bear."
A sign in the shop directed customers with complaints to go to "Helen Waite."
Birmingham businessman Eli Stevens, Koutroulakis' friend and neighbor since childhood, stopped by the shop Tuesday to salute his buddy -- literally.
"This was the place Gus loved," Stevens said. "He didn't have to do this. He did it because it was his first love."
The fate of the beloved hot dog stand is uncertain.
Asked in an interview years ago if he had someone lined up to take over, he said, "No, when I leave here, this place will be gone."