By Leslie Ann Blake
UNC staff writer
When King’s Sandwich Shop first opened in 1942, its only vegetarian option was a grilled cheese.
Though the menu has expanded, many things the original customers admired about the shop have stayed the same, current owner T.J. McDermott said.
“This isn’t any other place,” McDermott said. “It’s King’s, an honest piece of the past.”
As previously reported by the VOICE, McDermott bought the historic shop in 2010 after it shut down in 2007. Located at the corner of West Geer and Foster streets in downtown Durham, the shop is known for its hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes.
The shop already offers a larger menu than the original, and it will soon expand again.
When McDermott reopened the shop, he said, he wanted to include more than the original staples, particularly vegetarian options. He added a black bean burger and a vegetarian hot dog. Among the additions on the new menu will be an organic carrot hot dog.
“The organic hot dog was my little brainstorm,” said McDermott. “One night I was leaning against my refrigerator chewing on a carrot and I was like, ‘Oh God, this stinks.’”
McDermott, whose wife was a vegetarian for several years, said that he wanted everyone to be able to eat at King’s.
“We see people here from all walks of life, all races, all backgrounds,” McDermott said, adding that it would be a shame to exclude vegetarians.
“Some people look at vegetarians as finicky eaters, but they’ve made a hard decision and should stick to it,” he said.
Marie Garlock, a vegetarian who frequents King’s, said she is a fan of the black bean burger. She is a graduate student studying communications at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It’s the best in town,” she said of the black bean burger, “and that’s saying something because there’s a lot of great competition here.”
Andy Maynard, who is not a vegetarian, said a vegetarian friend recommended the black bean burger, and he has eaten it regularly ever since. A seven-year resident of Durham, Maynard often comes to King’s after studio hours at the Claymakers studio next door.
“I just have a black bean burger, and life is good,” he said as he took a large bite of his burger, King’s sauce dripping off its sides.
The original vegetarian option, the “Hot Cheese,” is still a popular choice.
Earlene Roberts of Durham brought her grandson, 5-year-old Brayden, who ordered the Hot Cheese.
“I like this grilled cheese,” Brayden said.
“He’s real picky about his grilled cheeses,” added his grandmother, “but he tore this one apart.”
Vegetarians are not the only ones who can expect more options, McDermott said.
“I don’t want the hot dog police to come get me if I’m too healthy,” he joked.
The expanded menu will include items that have been popular daily specials in the past, said McDermott. Among these are the po’boy sandwich and a blue cheese bacon-encrusted burger, perfected by Chef Mark Smith.
Britt and Donald Woolley, 12-year residents of Durham, come every Saturday. They are thankful to see the blue cheese burger become a permanent option.
“There’s more variety than there has been,” Britt said of the menu. “But it’s not a pretentious or snobby place.”
No matter how much the menu expands, McDermott said he wants to capture the atmosphere of the original King’s that made it iconic.
“The atmosphere is wonderful,” said Kenric Gillespie of Chatham County, who is a first-time customer. “The service is wonderful.”
“What’s nice about this place is that they really make an effort to know your name and your order,” said Roberta Wood of Chapel Hill, who also visits after time spent at Claymakers. “It’s more than friendly. They make you feel like family.”
Another King’s tradition that McDermott said he hopes to keep alive is the freshness of the food.
“People think we’re fast food, but it takes a minute to make our burgers,” McDermott said. “Everything is fresh and served to order.”
The hamburger patties, made of 100 percent pure beef, are hand-patted every day, said McDermott.
Maynard said he can taste the difference.
“If there’s not love in the food, you can tell,” he said. “And there’s love in this food.”
McDermott said he plans to expand the restaurant physically, as well. A larger patio is in the works, as well as a catering service and later weekend hours.
“It would be great if it was open on Thursday and Friday nights,” said Woolley, who lives within walking distance of King’s.
For now, McDermott said frequent stories from past customers remind him daily of the shop’s importance to Durham.
“People wanna see this place running,” he said. “I have a real responsibility.”
King’s accepts only cash and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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