I went to King’s Sandwich Shop intending to sit down and have lunch with the owner, T.J. McDermott, and to have a conversation about the Durham eatery’s long history. Unfortunately, due to my frequently poor communication skills, I asked the woman taking orders at the window if McDermott was there. “No, he doesn't come in on Tuesdays.”
A little distressed, I ordered some food and decided to call McDermott to see if he would talk over the phone. He offered to meet me on a moment’s notice, and I was halfway into an amazing Cackalacky King (a beer-soaked brat topped with pulled pork and house-made coleslaw) and a side of fried okra when he arrived with a smile. What ensued was an engrossing and candid conversation illustrative of Durham’s sense of community, past and present.
King’s Sandwich Shop has its roots in a little hot dog stand located across the street from present-day King’s, along Foster Street. The High family, recognizing the quality of the food, decided to formalize the hot dog stand into an actual eatery. The result was the establishment of King’s Sandwich Shop in 1942. King’s, affectionately referred to as “the hot dog stand” by locals, carved itself a reputation; it was the place to get classic American food at a reasonable price with the added benefit of “good old-fashioned ‘50s-style” hospitality. The family-owned and operated business was a trademark of Durham until it fell into a state of disrepair and eventually closed in 2007. When McDermott finally saw the building, the roof had caved in, and only tales of the double cheeseburger—paired with a lemonade—remained.
McDermott, immediately welcoming and enthusiastic, is an embodiment of what King's has become for many. Citing his own experience in his father's steel industry, he's learned the value of hard work, dedication and a family-owned business. He had been working for the municipality around the area and saw in King’s the opportunity for “historic renovation of the building, the business, the city of Durham and the people.” While explaining the importance of community landmarks, he described returning to his own hometown where he found that the classic hang-out spot, the A&W hot dog stand, was bulldozed and forgotten. “Everything was gone—building, everything—erased from memory from everyone.” He didn't want King’s to have the same fate, so he decided to renovate it.
After three failed attempts at reaching Greg High, the current owner and descendent of King’s founder, McDermott saw that a “for lease” sign was erected. An open interest session was held, and over a dozen potential buyers laid out plans to build law offices, jewelry stores and other various businesses. It took little effort on McDermott’s part to convince High that re-establishing “the hot dog stand” and investing in the community would be the best decision. The goal then became preserving the building, the food and the aura of the old eatery.
McDermott claims that he had no idea what he was doing, but it doesn’t take long to realize that he did something right. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm from the community was overwhelming; throughout the process he received widespread help. There was massive local support: High financed the renovations; residents helped re-roof the building without pay; and between owners of a grocery store and a hardware store, McDermott learned how to shop as a restaurant owner. Every time he asked how much he owed, he was simply told, "Just get that place open."
Renovations were going well, but the name was still up in the air. High’s sister did not want the name “King’s Sandwich Shop” to be used since she felt that it was a family name distinct from the ‘new’ eatery. When inspecting the building right before opening, however, High “took his glasses off, looked around and said, ‘I think they would be right proud to call this King’s—let me talk to my sister.’”
And so in 2010, “King’s Sandwich Shop” reopened, keeping many of the original recipes with a few select additions to the menu.
Along with the recipes came several original customers. Thomas Woble, who recently passed away, told McDermott about his time, decades ago, with the Negro Baseball League. Woble said he used to dine at King’s because the restaurant would actually serve him, shooting McDermott a look and implying that other places would not do as such.
To McDermott and many others within the community, King’s represents a place in Durham where people from all walks of life can meet up, get good food and feel at home. “Everyone likes hot dogs—blue collar workers, bums, women in high heels.” McDermott explained that renovating King’s was not a business decision, especially with food prices rising, new restaurants advertising heavily and food trucks popping up all over the city. “The true wealth or worth comes from being able to have a place to go and to be a connector for everyone.”
Nonetheless, McDermott does play with the idea of changing things up. The food is local and, by definition, “gourmet.” He could easily play up that angle and work his way into Durham’s extensive foodie culture. He’s even joked about putting wheels on the sides of the building and advertising King’s as “the original food truck.” Although his food is cheaper than that of most food trucks, he pays more taxes and operational costs than do his mobile competitors.
It’s the unique permanence of King’s space, however, that keeps McDermott from franchising or expanding. Rather, he values King as an investment in the community and not in his own pocket, and it's become his own family business. When it comes down to it, King’s is an experience and not just a place to get rockin’ food.
King’s is “representative of old Durham with the food, the past and the friendliness.” He explained—and I agreed—that Duke students tend to be scared to go off campus and explore Durham; the city has a rough image, but that doesn't need to be the case. King’s has helped transform the area off East Campus. Community renovations—whether by Duke or by King’s—have revitalized the area and promoted even further development.
King’s Sandwich Shop collides the old with the new, and the city with the school; both places are paramount to Durham. What better way to reconnect than to share a hot dog, fried okra and a strawberry milkshake?