WILSON — Places built with strength and endurance tend to stand the test of time. People filled with compassion and driven by service toward others become revered. Often, when you least notice, those places and people become legendary.
Down in the heart of Wilson, a town built on farming tobacco, there’s a little hot dog stand where the familiar come week after week, where passersby stop for a peek, and where you walk in and feel at home.
Dick’s Hot Dog Stand, situated on the corner of Nash and Pearson streets, began in 1921 when Socrates “Dick” Gliarmis sold the very first hot dog. Across the street from the restaurant’s current location the same delicious hot dogs were sold out of a wooden grocery store for a nickel.
“Daddy sold them there for a year before moving to where the stand is now. Two tobacconists (Tom Moore and Jack Mylum), who were also customers, told him he needed a name for his diner. They said, ‘you can’t name it Socrates, so how about Dick’s?,'” said son Lee Gliarmis.
Ninety-six years later, the name and the restaurant are still going strong. Dick’s Hot Dog Stand survived the Roaring ’20s, two world wars, and the Great Depression, never closing its doors.
“I used to walk up here before school and take the bottle drinks outside helping Daddy get ready for the day,” said Lee.
In the early years, Dick’s Hot Dog Stand was surrounded by fields and countryside. The Circus Grounds were the restaurant’s backyard neighbor and in the late 1920s the traveling circus featured famed cowboy Tom Mix.
“Tom wanted a hot dog when he came to town, so I remember my father stayed open until 2:30 a.m. one night to feed him a hot dog,” said Lee.
Over the years, it has become a meeting place for people of all ages. People stop by before or after the big football game or dance, and for date night or their Sunday meal. Curbside service was offered until 1940.Actress Ava Gardner, a student at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College), was dating one of the young boys who worked the curbside service. She would frequently stop by and grab a hot dog.
“She and her boyfriend drove up the night before she moved to New York City and asked me to take their picture,” said Lee. “She left the next morning, and it was the last time I saw her here.”
Socrates died of cancer in 1951 at the age of 60, leaving a young boy fresh out of college at the University of North Carolina to take over the family business.
“I’ve always enjoyed meeting people and working here. This has been a good experience for me,” said Lee.
One such memorable occasion was a time during the 1960s, when there was a Wednesday special of five hotdogs for $0.99.”People would be lined up out the door for the special. Some would be regular customers and some would be just a Wednesday customer,” laughed Lee.
Today, Lee continues the restaurant along with his son, Soc, and daughter, Chris Anne.
“At six years old, I would come down with Dad and he would give me something to do. I was usually in the back room slicing cheese,” said Soc. “It is a blessing working with my dad every day.”
“He is the hot dog stand. People come in to see him and people came in to see his dad before that,” added Soc.
Though the menu has expanded over the years to 45 items including gyros and sandwiches, customers favor the hot dogs the best. Covered in mustard, onions, ketchup, slaw, and chili, millions have enjoyed these hot dogs.
The chili, made in secret with fresh ingredients and fresh ground beef, was originally created by Socrates in 1921. Campbell’s Soup once approached Socrates about having his famous chili canned.
“He turned them down,” said Lee. “He wanted to keep the recipe in the family.”
“The chili remains a secret, but otherwise, if we have the ingredients and you want something, we will make it,” added Soc. “We do specialize for our customers crispy fries, soft fries, regular fries.”
Closed on Mondays, Dick’s Hot Dogs is open Tuesday through Sunday.
“Growing up, as a family, we would come in here on Monday nights and eat as a family when the restaurant was closed,” said Soc.
Sitting inside, you never know who you will see at the booth next to you. Athletes, coaches, politicians, celebrities, dignitaries, or your neighbor down the street. The restaurant’s decor remains the same as it was in the 1960s. The green vinyl booths and yellow tables are nestled between the wood paneled walls filled with memorabilia.
The paneled wood walls are covered with photographs, autographs, and memorabilia from all over the nation. It’s become a museum full of legendary greats. Visitors can browse through photographs and autographs of North Carolina senators and governors, athletes such as Harris Barton and Jerry Rice, notable coaches like Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, local high school athletic teams, college baseball and football teams, and Gliarmis family photos. There’s even an Academy Awards invitation, signed baseballs, and remnants from the military salutes of three presidential inaugurations.
“I love it here, and I’m thankful to the community. Sharing stories with everyone is what I love to do,” said Lee.
If the walls of the old hot dog stand could talk, Lee believes they would tell him, “Do better and do more. I wish I could. I love to work.”
Ask anyone who knows Lee and has stopped by for a hot dog, and they will tell you, “He’s done great. He’s done plenty.” That the man behind the counter with his bright eyes, big smile and hot dog stand became legendary.