Army veteran celebrates career in hot dogs in NC
LEXINGTON — A hot dog a day will keep the doctor away. That’s what Steve Koonts believes and makes a point to live by it, sometimes eating a Kearney’s Drive-In hot dog for breakfast.
Through a 27-year career at Kearney’s, located on Southbound Street off West Fifth Avenue, and 37 total years in the food industry, Koonts said he has seen changes through the years. A baby, toted on a mother’s hip and fed bites of a famous hot dog, has grown up and now stops by for the occasional treat with her own children.
“I knew some children when they couldn’t reach the counter, and now they are bringing their own babies,” Koonts said.
His history in the food service industry began at age 11 when he began “catching curb” for his uncle and aunt, Kearney and Dot Koontz, at the Green Door on the corner of West Second Avenue and South State Street. The Green Door closed in the early 1960s, about the same time 19-year-old Koonts decided to enlist in the military.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to make burgers my whole life,” Koonts said.
That enlistment day began a 23-year career in the Army. The beginning of his career kept him in the United States, stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C., and Fort Gordon, Ga. From there, Koonts left to be stationed in places such as Thailand, Germany, Vietnam and Belgium.
“My favorite place was SHAPE in Belgium,” Koonts said, noting that SHAPE stood for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
He added that he found it appealing because people from all around the globe were stationed at SHAPE. Through the five years he was stationed there, Koonts picked up some German words. In addition to learning a little bit of a second language, Koonts was part of the International Square Dancing Club.
“The president of the club wrote a letter to the mayor of Paris asking if we could perform,” Koonts said, adding that it was one of the most memorable moments he had while in the service. “We put on a demonstration under the Eiffel Tower. That is probably the first and last time that was ever done.”
The first five years of service flew by, and Koonts said he thought “only 15 more to go.” So he decided to stay and once he hit 10 years of service, he said he thought “halfway there,” and therefore with that mentality, Koonts stayed for 23 years, retiring in 1985 with the rank of sergeant first class.
But once the grease, carbohydrates and food particles get into someone’s blood system, it never fully leaves. After the military, Koonts returned to work for Kearney’s.
“Anyone that’s in the cafe business, it’s in their blood. You either like it or you don’t,” Koonts said.
Before Koonts retired from the military, Kearney Koontz opened Kearney’s Drive-In where the former John Wayne’s Barbecue is located on Southbound Street, and a trailer park with five mobile homes sat in the space where Kearney’s is now. The little structure that still stands today was erected in 1967 and even with renovations and updates remains the nostalgic building, stuck in time.
Koonts makes all the restaurant’s chili, barbecue slaw and white slaw in addition to running the window about 40 hours a week. No one knows his recipes, not even the other employees, and he’s been making them the same way all his years of employment.
But just before the 45th anniversary of Kearney’s, Koonts did something he hadn’t done in his tenure at the restaurant — he took the first full week of vacation he can remember.
“If I’m not here, people want to know where I’m at. If I’m sitting outside during break, people will honk as they drive by,” Koonts said, smiling. “I guess I’m just part of Kearney’s.”