Berkshire Profile: Jeff Levanos/Jack's Hot Dog
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North Adams - Open the door to Jack's Hot Dog Eagle Street eatery and several things hit the consciousness: the sizzle of a hot grill, the crowd jam-packed at the counter, and the organized chaos guided by cook and business owner Jeff Levanos.
"Ok, I got two with, one double, what's waiting?" he called to his busy counter assistants on a Sept. 30 afternoon.
"Waitin' on one with and a pepper steak," came a reply.
Meanwhile, customers have shifted seating to make room for a family of three, someone has arrived for a take-out order and the phone is ringing.
First opened in 1917 by Levanos' grandfather Jaffros Levanos, the small but wildly popular business has stood the tests of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the economic booms of the 1950s and '60s, the fuel crisis of the '70s, and the economic downturns of the 1980s and 1990s. With the turn of the century and what many believe is the turn of fortune for the city, Jack's thrives from it's street-facing niche within one of the city's most historic regions.
And Jeff Levanos is thriving there as well.
"I know I didn't appreciate the business as a city landmark when I was younger but now I have a tremendous amount of pride in this place," said the 48-year-old Levanos during a Sept. 28 interview. "It's become to me what it was to my father. Now I have that pride and that passion. I know this is a big part of this city.I know it when a great-grandfather comes in and brings his great-grandson, and it turns out that the great-grandfather came in as a boy."
"And They Fell In Love"
The story of Levanos is deeply entwined with the story of Jack's, a story that belongs exclusively to a Northern Berkshire city known as the "Western Gateway."
For a time prior to 1917, Jaffros "Jack" Levanos was busy at a different hot dog shop, the "Atlanta" on State Street, while George and Mary Collett were engaged with a similar business at the current Jack's site. The couple had a son named for his father, Levanos said.
"George went back to Greece and while he was there he was killed," said Levanos. "And Mary, who became my grandmother, was here with her young son and she knew my grandfather and his place on State Street. She asked him to help her with the place on Eagle Street. One thing led to another and they fell in love."
Levanos' father John is a son of Jaffros and Mary Levanos; John Levanos and his wife Lucille operated the business for decades after Jack Levanos retired. Mary Levanos' son from her first marriage was killed in a car accident, Levanos said.
Jeff Levanos and his sister Maria spent their childhood in Clarksburg. He was a student at the Clarksburg Elementary School and graduated as a member of the Drury High School Class of 1976.
As a youth, Levanos worked at the eatery during summer vacations and on weekends. But at first, he believed his future would separate him from the family enterprise.
"30 Years Later, Here I Am"
Levanos spent two years as a marine biology student enrolled at the University of Miami. But "marine biology wasn't what I thought it would be and I found it wasn't my main interest," he said.
"And actually, it wasn't so much marine biology that I didn't like, it was the climate. I missed the four seasons."
Levanos opted to take a semester off and went to work at Jack's.
"I took the time off to decide what I wanted to do and 30 years later, here I am," he said with a chuckle.
It wasn't only the family business that held Levanos' interest; during that time he met his wife, Mary Lou [Ellis] Levanos. The couple married 23 years ago and have an 11-year-old son Joey. The family lives in Clarksburg.
"That was a big part of [remaining in the area], meeting Mary Lou," he said.
For many years, Levanos worked with his father. And "work" would be the key word, he noted.
"Jack's was always a strong business," Levanos said. "It was always instilled in me that I would never become rich from it but it would take care of me if I worked it."
"So I worked it, 65 hours a week six days a week. I knew going in that's how small business works, you put yourself into it. Some of my friends didn't always understand that, but I knew going in that was how it had to be."
When family members work closely on a daily basis, tensions may bubble from time to time. And in a family venture, people want to be "leader" as opposed to "follower," Levanos said.
But the rewards are greater than the challenges.
"There can be tension," he said. "But there's a lot to be said for being your own boss."
Cooking By Ear
There's also a lot to be said for pride in business and that pride is evident when Levanos is asked about the restaurant, the unique manner of operation, the low prices, the generations of loyal patrons.
"Everything that can possibly happen has happened," he said. "The electricity has gone out but we cook with gas so we keep cooking. I've never burned out a steamer, but I came close once, about 20 years ago. One grill is the original grill from 90 years ago and the other is one that was bought used and I don't really know how old it is. Back then, things were built to last."
The grills lack precise controls, so Levanos has learned to cook by "ear."
"I've learned how to adjust the temperature manually and I can stick the meat thermometer in there and I already know it's at 160 degrees," he said. "I know when to raise the temperature and when to lower it. Once I was in the back and I called out to one of the girls to turn up the grill because the sizzle wasn't right. I can hear it, when a burger hits the grill, if it's right or not. I can tell with the deep fryer if the bubble isn't right."
Jack's burgers are all shaped by hand, and the 150 to 200 pounds of potatoes used daily are washed, peeled, and cut into french fries by hand at the eatery, Levanos said.
"I believe in what my grandfather believed; you give people a fresh, good meal at a price they can afford," he said.
Jack Levanos believed in the honesty of his customers as well; during the Depression, food credit slips were piled high, Levanos said. The restaurant has never turned away a customer because the customer couldn't pay, he said.
"And people have always made it back later on and paid," he said. "I've never had a person not come back and pay. It's not about money, it's about making people happy. That's why Jack's has been in business for 90 years. This all came naturally to my grandfather. You treat people right and they won't take advantage of it. One customer never had the ability to pay but he handcrafted a grandfather clock for my grandfather and gave it to him as payment. My grandfather had that clock until the day he died."
"That's part of the business and the family tradition and I am trying to carry that on. It's not about what you have in your wallet."
Taking It To 100 Years
It is about the friendships that carry on over time, the customer loyalty, the delight when a native returns home for a visit and finds Jack's as remembered, Levanos said.
"One of my customers recently passed away," Levanos said. "She had come to Jack's for the first time on her sixth birthday in 1921, and she'd been coming back for all those years. Every customer has a different story. People from out of town come in and they think the menu on the wall is a joke; they ask what the 'real' price is."
Prices at Jack's are amazingly affordable; a hot dog or a single hamburger, served in a steamed bun, is priced at $.95, while a single cheeseburger is priced at $1.05.
His son is interested in the business, said Levanos, and he admitted to having a father's eye on his son's future.
"All he wants to do is be the owner of Jack's and I'd like him to go to college and have the six-figure job and the five weeks vacation."
Levanos has set a goal for the business that is wound around the family work ethic and the realization of what is often termed the "American Dream."
"Everybody has their thing and Jack's is mine," Levanos said. "I want to get it to 100 years. I think that would make my father - and my grandfather - real happy. It would make them proud."
Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-823-9367.