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Roast Grill’s owner seeks help to ‘save’ famous downtown hot dog spot

Couple weds inside of the Roast Grill in Raleigh

Kimber Smith and Tony Wayne exchange vows of the Roast Grill in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, April 26, 2014. Smith and Wayne shared one of their first dates and many years later a marriage proposal at the Roast Grill.
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Kimber Smith and Tony Wayne exchange vows of the Roast Grill in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, April 26, 2014. Smith and Wayne shared one of their first dates and many years later a marriage proposal at the Roast Grill.

The Roast Grill, the hole-in-the-wall hot dog joint famous for its ketchup ban, is seeking donations to “save” the 1940 restaurant downtown.

On a Gofundme page, longtime operator George Poniros is asking for $17,500 for repair needs, including refrigeration, plumbing, flooring and electrical work related to its 30-foot cooler. He was careful to explain that the building itself, bought by his grandfather in the 1920s, remains sound.

“It was emptying my bank account and savings, and it got me into half of that debt,” he said Thursday. “My family is three people. It’s hard to save money.”

By Thursday afternoon, the Roast Grill had raised almost $10,000 toward its goal, prompting Poniros to rave about the outpouring of support. One customer wrote on The Roast Grill’s fundraising page: “With the massive influx of people coming in, and seeing Raleigh turn into something so different so quickly, it’d be nice to have some ‘Old Raleigh’ still around.”

DISPLAY-Restaurant
Mary Charles prepares hot dogs at the Roast Grill on West St. during a lunch rush in 1989. The eatery recently posted a Gofundme ad seeking repair costs for the 30-foot cooler. 1989 News & Observer File Photo - Robert Willett rwillet@newsobserver.com

Best known for its “HOT WIENERS” sign, the building at 7 S. West St., is as much artifact as eatery, one of dozens in Raleigh started by Greek immigrants in the early decades of the 20th century.

Hot dogs cost $2.50 there, in stark contrast to the gourmet variety sold at a now-shuttered establishment on Fayetteville Street that charged more than three times that price. The dogs come blackened, sodas are served in long-neck bottles, and ketchup is verboten.

“Grandma told me not to change anything but the prices,” Poniros told The News & Observer in 2010, wearing a sheriff’s hat for the grill’s 70th birthday party. “And never put ketchup in there. We spend too much time making delicious chili for people to ruin it with ketchup.”

As a senior citizen among Raleigh restaurants, it inspires the loyalty normally reserved for ball teams. Chris Hogan, a patron Thursday, holds the record for consecutive attendance: 72 straight days of Roast Grill hot dogs.

“The first time I met (George), it was like a dad,” Hogan said, adding that he drove to Raleigh from Fort Bragg for his dogs. “I ate about six a day, plus pound cake. My wife found out at about day 56.”

The restaurant has grown as famous for its feats of gastronomic strength as for its menu fussiness. In 2009, Marylander Gabe Gigliotti consumed 24 dogs in an hour, all of them on buns, to set a Roast Grill record. Earlier that year, the Roast Grill appeared on an episode of The Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food.”

To donate, go to gofundme.com/save-the-1940-roast-grill-raleigh.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08
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