Hap's Grill celebrates 25 years

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 27, 2011

SALISBURY — On every visit to Hap’s Grill, Dan Lyerly orders the same thing: a hot dog all the way, extra mustard, light on the onions.
“That’s known as a ‘Dan Dog,’ ” says Lyerly, a Spencer retiree.
Lyerly used to work downtown and became a patsy for the delectable smells coming from Hap’s every morning.
“All he had to do was open the door,” Lyerly complains. “By 12, you knew what you wanted. It’s just the best hot dog in town.”
After 25 years in business, Hap’s Grill easily qualifies as a Salisbury institution.
Its customers have always marveled at how simple the three-person operation is — good hot dogs and hamburgers served quickly, with a bottle of soft drink, if you like.
Any Salisburian worth his salt has returned to work from lunch and been betrayed by the smell of Hap’s onions and chili permeating his clothing.
A coworker’s reprimand usually follows:
“And you didn’t bring me anything?”
Who hasn’t waited in the line at Hap’s as it snakes out the heavy glass door and spills onto the sidewalk on North Main Street?
Or you probably have eaten, standing up, at the counter inside or around one of the long-legged, wooden tables out front. There are no tables at Hap’s — a place built for speed.
Maybe you are one of the names on the Hap’s Grill Honor Roll. Owner Greg Culp is the last word on what a person must accomplish to have his name added to one of the wooden plaques.
Culp sizes you up and determines how many hot dogs or hamburgers at one standing you’ll have to eat to earn the recognition. A 1-year-old who ate a whole hot dog is on the wall, and so is a 98-year-old who downed a cheeseburger and hot dog.
But a warning: Most people have to eat at least 10 hot dogs to be considered. Mark Collins set the Hap’s record for hot dogs with 15 on Oct. 5, 1998, and Gregg Conrad ate a record 10 cheeseburgers on April 7, 1993.
Hap’s Grill operates out of a shotgun building only 8 1/2 feet wide and 70 feet long. Before 1927, it was an alley. Now it carries the unusual address of 116 1/2 N. Main St.
A faded metal awning and a neon sign in the window distinguish the outside. Inside, the walls have old Coca-Cola and A&W Root Beer signs, a Cheerwine clock, a Royal Crown Cola thermometer, a black-and-white picture of The Little Rascals and, straight back, a Norman Ingle Jewelers clock rescued from storage upstairs.
In the past, Ingle operated his jewelry store from this same location.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Culp stands at his grill just behind the front counter and over the left shoulder of Vickie Carter, who has been taking the orders for 19 years.
Culp hears each request, but Carter repeats it to him, just to be sure. On a recent Saturday, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Hap’s Grill offered hot dogs — made any way a customer wanted them — for $1 each.
Out of 1,850 hot dogs sold, Culp committed only two mistakes in the orders, brags his right-hand man, Jamie Gobbel.
Carter knows the prices by heart, and is a human calculator in determining what a customer owes almost immediately. In these inflationary times, Hap’s Grill has maintained the same prices for the last six or seven years, Culp says.
Hot dogs are $1.50; cheese dogs, $1.75; hamburgers, $2.75; cheeseburgers, $3; drinks, $1.25; and chips, 75 cents.
Culp has never considered adding to the simple menu, changing the grill’s hours or messing with the tried-and-true formula of preparing and serving fresh food every day.
Every hamburger patty is hand-rolled, usually by Gobbel, who also chops some 75 to 100 pounds of onions daily. In addition, Gobbel pre-cooks the hamburgers in back before sending them up to Culp for the finishing grill time.
The chili is made daily.
“The key to our success,” Culp says, “is that we do things the hard way. We don’t do shortcuts.”
Culp says he sells twice as many hot dogs as hamburgers. And most people, when ordering a soft drink, prefer Cheerwine in the glass bottles.
Customers are always asking Culp for the chili recipe that elevates the hamburgers and hot dogs into the “all-the-way” category. But Culp says that’s a trade secret.
“It’s not even written down,” he adds.
The busiest times of the year are during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. January is probably the slowest month, Culp says, because many people have made New Year’s resolutions about watching their calorie intake.
The most hot dogs he ever sold in one day was 2,200 — a $1-per-hot-dog special on a July Fourth.
Orrell’s Food Service Inc. of Linwood provides all the food and paper products for Hap’s Grill, named for the original owner, Hap Alexander.
As a 14-year-old, Culp began working at Hap’s on the fifth day it was open. By the time he was 22 in 1995, he bought the grill from Alexander, who moved to Topsail Beach and opened up a successful business there.
Culp, now 39, says he still talks regularly with Alexander, who has retired to the Virginia mountains.
Culp and Gobbel, who are cousins, generally work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. A lot of people tell them how easy they have it, but Gobbel says the preparation, cooking and cleaning never stops from the time they arrive until they leave.
Customers appreciate the principles Hap’s is built on.
“It’s good and fast, and people know what to expect,” Culp says.
The standing and movements over the grill five hours a day have taken their toll on Culp’s body. His legs, shoulders and wrists constantly ache. He can’t sleep on his side, and his elbow has limited range from all the flipping of burgers and turning of dogs.
“I don’t have tennis elbow,” Culp says. “I have burger elbow.”
A doctor said he could fix it, but the recovery would take 10 weeks. Culp says Hap’s Grill can’t afford him to be gone that long.
For their legs and feet, Carter and Culp have found that wearing Crocs has been the most comfortable shoe adjustment they’ve made in recent years.
Culp provides health insurance for himself and Gobbel. Carter is on her husband’s policy. Carter says she has stayed at Hap’s for almost two decades because of Culp.
“He’s a good boss man,” she says.
Likewise, Culp says he couldn’t make Hap’s work without Gobbel, Carter and, on Saturdays, Crystal Kirkland, who subs in for Carter.
Culp, Gobbel and Carter take a week’s vacation after the Fourth of July and again in October. Because they will be working a lot over the holidays, Culp also hopes to sneak in a few vacation days for his employees during January.
Is Salisbury the perfect place for a business like Hap’s Grill?
“Every downtown with a courthouse is the perfect place,” Culp says, judging that 50 percent of his business comes from the Rowan County Courthouse, which is only a block away.
In the past, Culp has considered franchising the Hap’s operation and even started with the legal paperwork, but he says it became too involved and too much of a headache.
(Culp’s brother, Brian, operates Brian’s Grill in China Grove, though it has some differences from Hap’s.)
While it’s demanding work, Hap’s Grill does allow time for Culp’s other hobby — scuba diving. He’s a certified instructor, who recently has been working with the Rowan Rescue Squad.
Lyerly, the Spencer retiree, has lunch at Hap’s Grill every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Some weeks, he even adds a day.
“I don’t like to admit to that often — my doctor could be listening,” he says.
He remembers the other legendary hot dog establishments in Salisbury. He ate the 25-cent hot dogs at Saleeby’s on Main Street in the 1950s, then moved on to foot-longs at Al’s Nighthawk.
But for the last quarter century, he has been a confirmed Hap’s Grill addict.
Lyerly usually stands and eats his “Dan Dog” in the corner next to the non-working jukebox in the front window.
“It’s a great place to catch up with people,” Lyerly says.
Hap’s Grill has 25th anniversary shirts and sweatshirts for sale. Information on the business also can be accessed through its Facebook page at Hap’s Grill Inc. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.