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Iconic Montgomery restaurant had front-row seat to civil rights movement

Source: WSFA 12 News Source: WSFA 12 News
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s Montgomery was the epicenter of a growing battle for civil rights, and the struggle unfolded right outside the door of a now nearly 100-year-old restaurant.

Chris' Famous Hotdogs is located near the middle of historic Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery. Theo Katechis is the son of Chris' founder and namesake, Chris Katechis.

“My dad came from a little small island on the Aegean Sea,” Theo Katechis said. “And he opened a little small restaurant with other relatives. They decided hotdogs was the way to go since the restaurant was so small.”

The now iconic restaurant opened in 1917. Back then the building used for the restaurant was only big enough to make the food, so the food was served curbside. At the time, Montgomery had many eating establishments downtown, and Katechis needed something to help his hotdog restaurant stand out. 

“The sauce on the hotdogs, it took awhile to develop. It took three or four years to decide, this is it. I think they kept trying. They asked the customers, and they said, ‘This is it!' So it hasn't changed since, probably ever since the ‘30s,” Theo Katechis said.

Chris Katechis' sauce helped popularize the small, unassuming diner. In the 1940s, Chris Katechis purchased the majority of the building that now makes up the restaurant. By the 1950s, Chris' became one of Montgomery's most popular eating establishments. 

However, Chris' was more than local hotspot. It was a gathering place for Montgomery's elite and working class alike. “Mr. Chris,” as Chris Katechis became known, became popular with both the white and black communities. 

“My dad always treated people the same, no matter what. He was an immigrant himself,” Theo Katechis said. 

As Chris' popularity grew, so did its cliental. Many of Montgomery's most influential figures became regular customers.  Among the prominent patrons was former Gov. George Wallace. Theo Katechis said Wallace was a regular well before he became governor.

 “He was a little poor lawyer. And he would come in with no money, and my dad would give him credit. So George Wallace never forgot my dad. In fact, our largest order ever at Chris' was from George Wallace when he was campaigning for governor. It was 3,000 hot dogs,” Theo Katechis remembered.

Like Wallace, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were regulars. Both worked in downtown Montgomery, and Chris' convenient location made it the best spot for a quick and cheap meal. 

“Rosa Parks used to come in here because she took the bus to go to work and to get home. All of the buses came downtown. So in between changing buses, she would come in here and order hotdogs,” Theo Katechis said. “Martin Luther King [also] used to come in here. Back then, he was the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Back then, we carried newspapers. We had a newsstand, and he would come in to buy the Atlanta Constitution every Sunday. My dad would talk with him quite often.”

Despite the popularity of his restaurant, Chris Katechis started to feel the pressure of the growing civil rights movement. 

“As a young boy, I was helping my dad do odd jobs and back then we were segregated. Black people were not allowed to sit in here, but they were allowed to come in here and stand about halfway. And we would go get the order for them, to go only. So my dad would take the order, and I would run back where the grills were and get the orders, and bring [them] back up there,” Theo Katechis said.

Because he allowed blacks through his front door, Katechis began to receive threats for his compassionate behavior towards minorities, particularly from the Ku Klux Klan.

”He did have threats [from the Ku Klux Klan]. They wanted to know why people were allowed through the front door. A lot of restaurants, they came in the back door. Well, this restaurant doesn't have a back door. So they said that will be ok, but it shows you how much power the Ku Klux Klan has at one time. It was pretty frightening,” Theo Katechis said.

Theo Katechis said he couldn't understand why blacks were treated differently. He eventually confronted his father whose answer represented the moral debate inside the hearts and minds of many white southern business owners sympathetic to the movement.

“And as a young boy, I questioned my dad. I said, ‘Well why can't they sit in here?' And he said, ‘Well that's just the way things are. I don't see why they can't either, but I have to go where things go in this city',” Theo Katechis said.

Chris Katechis was an immigrant from Greece.

“He spoke with broken English. So there were some prejudices towards him, but nothing like a black person… So my dad did feel some prejudices when he first came to this country. He kinda knew where blacks stood. He understood their plight, and he kinda sympathized with their problem,” Theo Katechis said.

When the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation in hotels, theaters and restaurants was passed in 1964, Chris Katechis was quick to allow blacks to eat at the counter alongside whites, but he was still concerned about the pushback. 

“It was kinda a stressful time. My dad said ‘I have no problem with the black person sitting in this restaurant. I was worried about the person sitting next to him. Was he one of those bigots? Was he going to start any trouble?'” Theo Katechis said.

 “When [desegregation] happened there were black people sitting at the counter, there were white people sitting next to them, and it was kinda a mixing of everything -- the way it should be. We did not have any trouble; it was kinda unique to watch all that come about,” Theo Katechis said.

Chris Katechis worked almost every day at Chris' from 1917 until he was forced into retirement due to health issues in the late 1980s. He died on Christmas Day in 1988. Theo Katechis now owns and runs Chris' Famous Hotdogs with his son Gus. 

Today, Chris' stands as a testament to Montgomery's past and how far the city, state and nation have come. Much of the building is still original, including the centerpiece lunch counter. The counter that once represented the forced segregation of the South now symbolizes how far the city has progressed in the last 50 years.

“You may have one of our elected officials sitting there, and the guy sitting next to him may not have enough money to buy a hotdog. So it's always a good place to sit, and find out who you are sitting next to,” Theo Katechis said.

Theo Katechis recognizes the historical significance of his father's restaurant and the small role his dad played in bringing together a broken community.  

 “Well it's kinda nice to be a part of that history and watch that happen, and I'm glad it turned out the way it did. Things are so much better now. It's hard to explain how someone was treated just because of the color of their skin, or how one person was treated because they couldn't speak perfect English. Then all this changed, and it's kinda fun to be a part of it. I hope I never forget about it,” Theo Katechis said.

Chris' Famous Hotdogs is located at 138 Dexter Ave. in Montgomery.

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