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A loyal customer can’t forget Al’s Night Hawk

SALISBURY — David Harrison’s nostalgic side no doubt prompted him to collect and hold on to things related to Al’s Night Hawk and its beloved owner, Al Boulus.

Any Salisburian worth his salt remembers the late Boulus — he of Lebanese descent, the big round face, hairy arms, smudged apron and good heart.

“It’s history,” Harrison says of the items he has, such as nine bar stools he grabbed from the second of three locations of Al’s Night Hawk. (Over his 51 years of business, Boulus had three different West Innes Street spots.)

“When you think about how many butts sat in those stools,” Harrison says, “I was one of them.”

Harrison holds up framed copies of the menu from Al’s third and final spot, which Boulus and his wife, Thelma, operated from 1984 to its closing in late February 2001.

Whereas the first two Night Hawk locations were maybe a bit seedier, wore their “C” sanitation grade as a badge of honor and depended more on college kids and town regulars dropping in for a beer and a footlong hotdog, the third place became downright respectable.

It earned an “A” health rating and expanded its menu to include fancy things such as deli sandwiches.

“His third location,” Harrison says, “became more of a family location, and his business quadrupled.”

A dedicated customer, Harrison nicely displays photographs of the footlongs and beer he consumed on the Night Hawk’s last day in business.

Harrison loves telling the story about the time he saw Dr. Malcolm Parada at Al’s eating some footlongs. He told the physician how he appreciated seeing a man of medicine eating those hotdogs.

“There’s no nutritional value,” Parada told Harrison. “They just make a great laxative.”

It calls to mind another Al’s Night Hawk story. Bobby Rogers, who used to own Rogers’ Exxon on South Fulton Street, held the record for eating nine footlongs in one sitting — and it was documented on television.

Years later, Rogers apparently tried to reprise the feat and came up woefully short, Harrison says.

Boulus allowed Harrison to have the last six-pack of beer when his restaurant closed. It was the only thing left in the refrigerator, Harrison says, and he suspects that was the case because it was nonalcoholic.

“I’ve got the six-pack around here somewhere,” Harrison says, looking through a lot of the sentimentally valued stuff he has accumulated over the years. “I don’t know what I did with it.”

Believe it or not, a young Al Boulus started out selling insurance — and didn’t like it. As a 26-year-old in 1950 and with Thelma’s support, he bought an ice cream shop on West Innes Street where today’s Weaver Building near Catawba College now stands.

Boulus started out selling ice cream and milkshakes, but before long, he transitioned to sandwiches and beer.

As for the name, the original ice cream stand was called “The Night Hawk.” Boulus simply replaced “The” with “Al’s,” and a Salisbury landmark was born.

Boulus moved to the second location — again, an old ice cream place — in 1959. It stood where The Palms restaurant is today on West Innes.

Harrison chuckles remembering when Al’s Night Hawk’s loyal patrons made Boulus a sign in 1981 saying the No. 2 location had been nominated for “landmark preservation” to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It was a spoof — it had not been nominated — but patrons had a good laugh, and the official-looking marker hung in the window prominently amid the Schlitz and Bud neon signs.

Boulus died in 2009 at the age of 86. He will always be remembered fondly by generations of Catawba College students who either patronized Al’s Night Hawk or worked for him.

Boulus often lent his student workers money against their paychecks. The Catawba kids, even after they were long gone and working elsewhere, would make pilgrimages to Al’s Night Hawk so they could visit with Boulus and have some foot-longs.

“Al and Thelma just had hearts of gold,” Harrison says.

It also was not uncommon for high school kids to stop at Al’s for soft drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers — especially after a game. The Night Hawk was one of the early places to offer pizza, too.

Al’s Night Hawk was known for having nine barstools out front and curb service in the back.

The swarthy Boulus usually took a place behind the counter and smoked a cigarette. He stayed open as long as he felt like being there, sometimes until 1 a.m.

Not only did Al’s third place become a little classier, it included an iconic sign with a huge caricature of Boulus and a hot dog. With the changeable letters, Boulus routinely used it to note the birthdays of Salisburians.

Andy Meng bought the place in 2001, and it has been a laundromat ever since. Harrison has told Meng he should put a hot dog stand in the laundromat — for history’s sake.

Harrison’s florist shop was less than a minute away from Al’s third location, so it was his go-to place to eat and socialize. The other day, he was visiting the Rowan Memorial Park cemetery when he happened to stop by the Chapel in the Pines mausoleum.

Looking up, he saw the marker for Al Boulus.

“Seeing his name up there was like, wow,” Harrison says.

That’s Harrison’s way of saying Boulus rated an “A” with him.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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