KINGSPORT — Mike Locke wasn’t looking to sell his restaurant. The owner and founder of the locally favorite Hot Dog Hut had grown the business from the ground up, serving thousands of people through the years, from U.S. presidents to Little League baseball players.
He had entertained a proposal to sell the business once before, but when that plan fell through, he dismissed the idea, thinking he would keep working at the restaurant he had started some 33 years ago.
Then Ken Carrigan walked through the door.
Earlier this year, Locke sold the Hot Dog Hut to Carrigan, a local businessman who had grown bored in his retirement and was looking for a new venture.
“I didn’t buy a restaurant. I bought a tradition. And what I want to do is maintain that tradition,” Carrigan said.
Starting a tradition
In 1977, Locke and business partner Tim Taylor opened a restaurant on Lincoln Street called Dilly Deli. Three years later, they moved the business to Sullivan Street and renamed it Hot Dog Hut. Locke said he hoped the new location would generate business from all the industries in the downtown district, including Eastman Chemical Co., the Kingsport Foundry, Mead (now Domtar), Quebecor World, AFG Industries (now AGC), and the J.P. Stevens Borden Mill plant.
At the time, as many as 20,000 people worked in factories in the downtown area. And Locke’s Hot Dog Hut was positioned in the middle of them.
In the next few years, Locke kept busy serving local employees and catering events at the plants where they worked.
He became the sole owner of the business when he bought out his partner’s share in the mid 1980s. But he wasn’t alone in the venture. Through the years he got help from his mother, Florence Locke, now 85, his mother-in-law Barbara Sanders, his wife Debbie Locke, and his son Hunter, now 21.
Locke built the restaurant’s reputation in the community, and soon became the go-to man for catered hot dogs and chili at various local events, including Dobyns-Bennett games, Kingsport Parks & Recreation ball games, Kingsport Mets games at Hunter Wright Stadium, Eastman games, and Little League. He also serves concessions at the Legion Pool.
Locke is also well known in political circles and has catered many Republican events, serving well-known figures in the GOP party, including presidents, senators, congressmen and state legislators.
In 2002, Locke joined the ranks of those politicians himself when he was appointed to fill the seat of state representative Keith Westmoreland, who had died. Locke served for six months in the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville until the next election. At that point, he chose not to run for the position.
“I had a business to run,” Locke said.
Locke began offering franchises of the business in the 1990s and today, you’ll find Hot Dog Hut franchised locations in Gray, Colonial Heights, and along John B. Dennis Highway in Kingsport.
On a recent midday in downtown Kingsport, dozens of people streamed into the original Hot Dog Hut on Sullivan Street, where the smell of grilled onions and peppers filled the room.
Patrons ordered hot dogs topped with cheese, peppers, slaw, and chili — all homemade.
Asked what makes his restaurant so special, Locke doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s the homemade chili,” he said.
He said he got the recipe years ago from the J.P. Stevens Women’s Club, which would sell hot dogs and chili as a fund-raiser with the American Legion Auxiliary Women each year at a local carnival.
“I remember people lining up to buy the chili,” Locke said.
His mother, Florence, was a member of both women’s organizations, and shared the chili recipe with her son.
Ironically, Locke doesn’t eat hot dogs. He prefers chili buns.
The restaurant also serves chicken and tuna salad, baked potatoes loaded with toppings, turkey and ham sandwiches, baked beans, potato salad and pork loin barbecue — hickory smoked for 12 hours, thinly sliced, then topped with the restaurant’s own barbecue sauce.
“Everything is homemade at the Hot Dog Hut,” Locke said.
Asked when he decided to sell the restaurant, Locke pointed to Ken Carrigan.
“He came in one day and said he was going to buy this place,” he said.
The Hot Dog Hut caught the attention of Ken Carrigan last year.
While working in chemical sales in 2004, Carrigan had purchased the old Paty building on East Stone Drive and had converted it to a storage facility, eventually selling that business in 2007.
After he retired from chemical sales with Drummond American in May 2008, he dabbled in real estate and stocks, but that required him to work on a computer in his home.
Bored, he was open to new opportunities.
“I had been selling all my life and being alone was driving me crazy,” Carrigan said.
One day he stopped by the Hot Dog Hut to eat, and watched the lunchtime traffic file in and out of the small restaurant.
“I could see the people coming in here and count the number of cars here on the street, and my entrepreneurial spirit kicked in,” Carrigan said.
Meanwhile, Locke had undergone a leg operation in February this year, and was continuing to recover while working at the restaurant.
“I just started talking to him — ‘You know, you need to go home and get off that leg,’ ” Carrigan said.
“Then a few weeks later, I said, ‘Don’t you want to go hunting and fishing?’ I just kept working on him. Finally he said — make me an offer. That’s where it started.”
The two worked out a deal, closed on Sept. 17, and Carrigan’s first official day of ownership was Sept. 18.
As part of the agreement, Locke agreed to remain on at the restaurant for a time to teach Carrigan the business. He stayed until the end of September.
“October 1, he said I’m outta here — I’m going hunting,” Carrigan said.
You can still find Locke at the restaurant on occasion, when he returns from hunting and fishing trips with his older brother, Bill Locke, who recently retired as president of Northeast State Community College.
Carrigan has two long-time Hot Dog Hut employees to keep him on track. Susan Copas has worked at the place for 24 years, while Sissy Graves has been there for four years.
“They keep this going,” Carrigan said. “I’m just here to wash the dishes.”
As for the future, Carrigan said the Hot Dog Hut will continue selling the same signature food it always has, including that homemade chili.
Carrigan said he hopes to increase the restaurant’s catering business. The Hot Dog Hut caters various events, from company picnics to ceremonies and weddings.
And he’s added a credit card machine for customers to pay with a credit or debit card now.
“That’s the only change,” Carrigan said.
“What I want to do is to carry on the tradition. I think a person would be crazy to start a restaurant from scratch these days. But there are people who come here everyday. It’s a tradition. And I want to maintain that,” he said.
The Hot Dog Hut is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
For more information or catering requests, call (423) 245-5731.