Tom Keller - 'T.K.' - fixes a hot dog at his cart at the corner of Center and Broad in Downtown Kignsport. Photo by Ned Jilton II.
KINGSPORT — After more than a decade in the hot dog business, Tom Keller is getting back to the basics.
And having a lot of fun in the process.
Keller, better known at "T.K.," is back where he started, selling hot dogs from a cart at the corner of Center and Broad in front of the Banq building.
"I was here for a year, then we went inside for 10 years, expanded the menu with different hot dogs from different cities, but distribution got to be a nightmare for us, along with the cost to get things here," Keller said, explaining why he closed his restaurant on Broad Street last year.
"When you add those two things together, the price of the product was going to go through the roof."
Keller's restaurant was located at the corner of Broad and Market and offered seven different styles of hot dogs and numerous toppings, including Chicago and West Coast style hot dogs. Keller was basically the one game in town when it came to the variety of hot dogs he offered.
But therein lies the problem.
"When you're the only game in town, distribution becomes a nightmare," Keller said. "When nobody else is using the products you have, you have to go through different channels and you can't go to one central location to get the things you need."
For example, the Chicago style hot dogs have to have poppy seed buns, bright green relish and pickled sport peppers, while the West Coast style hot dogs have to have the sourdough buns, sour cream and guacamole. And some of these items have to come from multiple locations.
"All the different aspects of what we were doing became an issue," Keller said. "The last six months we were open, two months we didn't have the pretzel buns."
Keller had planned on closing the restaurant back in 2012, but with the arrival of a granddaughter, the family decided to keep the business open another year. At the same time, LampLight Theatre came along and expressed an interest in buying the building.
"I took three and a half months off, then decided I'd come back out on the street and get back to the basics, having fun and just doing the normal stuff," Keller said. "From time to time, people need a paradigm shift. Well, I took one."
Keller's hot dog cart is open from lunch hours until about 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, though Mondays are not completely ruled out — depending on how bored he gets. The menu has been scaled down from seven types of hot dogs to three — the Nathan's out of Yankee Stadium, the Hebrew National Kosher hot dog and the Polish sausage.
Patrons can get seven different toppings (for no charge), chips and a soda with their order. Keller said he's still doing catering and special events, and believe it or not, provides drive-thru service from the cart.
Just place your order, drive around the block and it'll be ready, Keller said.
"This is a lot of fun. I get to meet a lot of nice people and enjoy Mother Nature," Keller said.