Mr. Spyros Dermatas of Nu-Way Weiners

Interviewer: We just wanted to talk to you today about Nu-Way's history, how it came about, how it started in Macon, family traditions, stuff like that. So we'll just start this out as a general question. Tell us a little about Nu-Way.

Spyros Dermatas: Yeah, absolutely, Nu-Way was started in 1916 by a gentleman by the name of James Mallis. In Greek, his name was Malliotis. He was a Greek immigrant, and he was my mother's uncle, so it was on my mom's side of the family that the business got started. 

NuWayBasically, back then there were waves of immigrants coming from Europe––Polish, Italian, Jews, Greeks, Germans––and he came in through New York City. As far as we know, he was probably there about two years working as a dishwasher. Cousins would bring cousins, brothers would bring sisters, and so on. They would stay, then they would bring spouses, siblings, whatever. After staying in New York for about two years, he came down South. The immigrants went wherever there were opportunities, and Macon happened to be my great uncle’s choice.

And then the rage at the time that really started in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, up in the North, was hot dogs. As a matter of fact, the hot dog started in New York at the Polo Grounds. Well, he came down here in 1914. When he got here, he bought the original storefront on Cotton Avenue in Macon. At the time, it was just a fruit stand, sort of like a sandwich shop. Back then, business was different. They could sell whatever––fruit, candy, you know, whatever. 

But when he saw that hot dogs were the rage, he converted it to a hot dog stand in 1916. They called it “Nu-Way” instead of “New-Way,” just to create some excitement to do something different. So that's why it's spelled the way it is. And then weiners was misspelled many years later when the sign was put up in 1937. That was twenty-one years later when they put the sign up, and he was long gone by then.

Traditionally, what would happen with Greek immigrants in the restaurant business is that they would work two, three, four, five years, sell it to their brother, go back to Europe, and then come back some years later. There were partnerships between relatives. He had a first cousin who was a partner and then they sold it to somebody else. 

My mom's two brothers got into the business back in the late 20s, early 30s. And then my dad, Nick Dermatas, got into the business back in the '50s, along with my partner's father, John Cacavias. My partner is James G. Cacavias. He's about my age. His dad was in the business. Both his dad and my dad are deceased. We're in our fifties and we run the business as co-partners.

Interviewer: So were there a lot of hot dogs in Macon at the time Nu- Way opened?

Spyros Dermatas: There could have been. We're not exactly 100% sure. There was probably a few places that would try them out. Don't forget, back in 1914 when he got here, this place was not a restaurant. It was a fruit stand, candy store, and deli. All that was here was downtown. 

Everything was downtown. There were probably ten hotels downtown, 40-50 restaurants. Macon was a bustling city. There were no outlying areas. Everything was downtown, so, yeah, there were probably some hot dog stands here.

Interviewer: So it started out as a street stand at first, not a retail storefront?

Spyros Dermatas: Yeah, that's how the name came about, “Nu-Way Weiner Stand.” It was primarily a take-out business. As a matter of fact, they had a window where you could walk up and people didn't even have to come in. People could just get their hot dogs to-go.

Interviewer: In our Southern Foodways class, our professor has hinted at the fact that the Nu-Way weiner may be the quintessential "Macon" food. How would you respond to that statement?

Spyros Dermatas: I'd agree. It's probably more associated with Macon than any other restaurant is. There's S&S Cafeterias which has been here for about 50 years. Then there's a famous barbeque restaurant called Fincher's that been around for a little over 50 years. But we beat them all. We've been very fortunate and very blessed, especially in the past 10 years. We've gotten a lot of publicity. It was PBS show that started the whole thing 10 years ago. There was an editor working for PBS who did a survey and said "Let's visit the top 10 hot dog places in America." 

We had won an internet contest a few months before that. There were 2 DJ’s out in Arizona who decided to do an online survey to find out what America's favorite hot dog is. And we won that. We beat all the famous places in Chicago and New York. Right now, the two hot dog havens are Chicago and New York. There are hot dog stands and restaurants everywhere when you go up there. But we've kept that tradition going here.

You go to a typical Southern city–– Montgomery, Columbus, Savannah–– and there is no hot dog chain anymore. Now, Atlanta has The Varsity–– the big hot dog joint downtown by Georgia Tech. But Macon and Atlanta are very unique in that hot dogs have continued to sell like they do up in New York and Chicago.

Interviewer: So would you go so far as to call the Nu-Way Weiner a "southern" food?

Spyros Dermatas: That's a good question. Not completely. A hot dog is a hot dog is a hot dog, and it's a national thing. It's kind of like America's favorite food. You expect it at a ballpark, a stadium, at a barbeque. But what makes the Nu-Way Weiner "southern" is that we do a southern-style, creamy coleslaw. You can get chili-sauce in New York City or Texas. You can't say that a chili-dog is southern. But the coleslaw we're famous for, it's our own recipe, private-label. We make it ourselves. Yeah, that's a southern slaw-dog.

Interviewer: How has Nu-Way's menu evolved over the years?

Spyros Dermatas: Quite a bit. When it first started, Mallisit was just the dogs sold with 25 to 30 different varieties of bottled sodas. In addition, we don't know how long it took him to phase out everything else he had in the stand before. There was no hamburger, no breakfast, no BLT. But by the late ‘20s, they added breakfast and a grilled cheese sandwich. By the late ‘30s, they had added a hamburger.

I'm old enough to remember back when I was a kid in the late '50s and early '60s when they would take 10 to 20 pounds of ground beef, run it through a grinder, make their own fresh patties, and mash them. Have y’all seen how Steak ‘n Shake does patties on the grill? They take a mound of ground beef, lay it, and then just mash it. Today, of course, we use frozen patties. They’re made to our specifications. Then the quarter pounder came on board in the 1950s.
They added the BLT and the grilled ham and cheese. The biscuit came on in the late 1970s when fast food joints started serving bacon and egg biscuits and sausage biscuits.

We used to have soups on the menu years ago. Now that’s out. We used to have doughnuts for desserts. We used to have cubed steak sandwiches. The menu today has been streamlined to where it was when I started working in the business with about 35 items on the menu. It’s changed, but the chili-dog has been there forever. The slaw dog, believe it or not, has only been around for about thirty years, starting in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s.

Interviewer: What about the Famous Flaky Ice?

Spyros Dermatas: Flaky Ice came on board in 1964. That’s when they started making that machine. The Coca-Cola company got us hooked on it. We tried it at one store and it was a big hit.

Interviewer: Now, as far as the ham, bacon, and ground beef for hamburgers. Back in Nu-Way’s earlier days, where did all those meats come from?

Spyros Dermatas: Back then, the state of Georgia was filled with packing houses. Packinghouses are where pigs come to slaughter. Macon had three or four slaughterhouses. The one Nu-Way used was called the T & T Packing Company, owned by Thomas and Tucker, two families. Don’t forget, Nu-Way survived the Great Depression. We really didn’t get out of the Depression until the late ‘30s. There was massive unemployment and poverty across the nation. The two partners would buy wherever they could. If T & T didn’t have enough food material to make the weiner, they would buy wherever they could. There were some weeks when they didn’t sell hot dogs at all. They would sell egg sandwiches for a  week if there were no beef and pork to make a weiner. Today, there is no packing-house anywhere in Central Georgia. Our weiners are custom-made for us up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A truck comes in once a week and stops in Atlanta. They make a custom weiner for The Varsity in Atlanta. They do our custom weiner, too, label and pack it just for us.

Interviewer: I guess that’s possible because of modern refrigeration.

Spyros Dermatas: Vacuum-packing has a shelf life of thirty days, which is really irrelevant because we turn them over within 48 to 72 hours. It’s packed in a ten pound case and shipped like that.

Interviewer: How many of those Nu-Way weiners do you sell a day?

Spyros Dermatas: The average Nu-Way store sells 400 a day. We’ve got some stores that sell 100 or 200, and then you’ve got high-volume stores like the one in East Macon that’ll sell 1000 plus a day, in addition to the hamburger.

Now, the hamburger is another story. Remember, as I told you, we would hand mash patties, but back then there were only two Nu-Ways when we did that. There was the original one on Cotton Avenue and one on Cherry Street as well. Everything was downtown in the ‘40s and ‘50s. 

We opened our first suburban store in South Macon in 1962 on Houston Avenue. It’s still there. When we opened that third store, we moved to the frozen patty. We started buying a special patty made for us in Tennessee. There’s a packer up there in Powell, Tennessee, called Travis Meats. They make our burger patty and our quarter pounder called the MegaBurger. It’s made to our specifications. It’s called the homestyle patty. It’s very loose, very tender.

Interviewer: What’s the most popular topping?

Spyros Dermatas: Chili sauce by far. Something we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years is that we sell less and less onions. When I was a kid, probably ninety percent of the dogs were ordered all the way. Today it’s not even half. A lot of people don’t want the onions.

Interviewer: How has the clientele changed?

Spyros Dermatas: Well, when my dad and his partner started opening suburban stores in the ‘60s, basically they went to South Macon, Southwest Macon, and North Macon. From 1962 to 1975, in a period of 13 years, they opened another eight stores. Six of those were in Macon and two were franchises in Warner Robins. So the clientele fit the part of the town they were in because, like I said before, downtown was the hub. Everything was downtown. There were no shopping malls. If anybody wanted to shop, bank, or transact business insurance, you had to come downtown.

Starting in the late 60s, early 70s, when they started opening suburban malls and strip centers, that’s when we started going out to where the people were. So your clientele basically changed in the sense that those suburban stores kind of catered to their neighborhoods. We like to match our employees to fit the neighborhood. 

I don’t want a manager from Jones County to travel to Fort Valley to run a store. We want them to be part of the neighborhood and know their clientele.Basically, our customer base is A to Z. It’s everybody. You can’t say that Nu-Way caters to one specific demographic. Everybody comes to Nu- Way.

Interviewer: That makes me wonder, how did Nu Way handle segregation as well as desegregation?

Spyros Dermatas: That’s a great question. I remember segregation well. I was in junior high back in 1967. Here in Macon, it was very peaceful. It was almost like God’s hand was on it. We didn’t have the riots, the trouble you saw in Albany, Savannah, Atlanta, other cities around us. It was a smooth transition. I have memories of black folks coming through the kitchen door. They didn’t feel comfortable coming through the front door to eat. In 1966, when I was thirteen years old, it just sort of happened. We had three stores at that time––South Macon and the two downtown stores. It took a period of transition, a time of adjustment. I vividly remember that it was uncomfortable. 

Let’s say, right now you wanted to come in through the kitchen door and eat in the kitchen. We can’t do that now, but they would do it back then. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t that long ago.

Interviewer: So which location gets the most business today?

Spyros Dermatas: East Macon, which is in Baconfield. It’s the one we call Baconfield Number 5. And the reason for its business is that you’ve got I-16 and I-75 Spring Street Bridge coming from downtown, Emery Highway, Gray Highway, and North Avenue all converging.  It’s just a tremendous hub there right behind the Krispy Kreme.

Interviewer: Where do you see the future of Nu-Way heading?

Spyros Dermatas: We have 11 stores now and we’re not in a slump, but with the economy the way it is we don’t have any plans to open anything big, but we would like to fill in the gaps within a 30-mile radius. We have identified at least six, seven, maybe eight gaps. If you look at a map, you’ll see we have gaps in places like Hartley Ridge Road, Bass Road, Perry, Highway 96, and the Byron exit on 1-75. 

There are still some possibilities, maybe even another one downtown once we revitalize the southern end of Cherry Street with the Terminal Station. There’s possibilities for growth from 11 to even 17 or 18 stores.

Interviewer: Who is next in line for Nu-Way?

Spyros Dermatas: My son is a graduate of Georgia Tech. He’s an electrical engineer, but he’s doing investment banking. He’s 25 years old. My partner Jim has a son who graduated from Georgia Tech, too. He’s an IT consultant who works with computers. Right now, neither of them has any interest in coming back. They worked here as teenagers. As soon as they were 13 or 14 years old, we had them working here in all the different stores, so that they would know the business.  But they spent four or five years in Atlanta and found out they just wanted to try something different. Then we both have daughters, too, but I don’t think they have any interest. We’ll see. You never know. 

We might sell part of the business, franchise it, you never know. We might do a joint venture with another outfit. Right now, we’re waiting to see how this economy pans out. Interviewer: The economy certainly has changed things. How much did the original Nu-Way Weiner cost back in the day?

Spyros Dermatas: It was only 5 cents in 1916. Now here’s the deal with that.  Like I said, he bought the place in 1914 and in 1916 converted it into a hot dog stand. Within a few years, the Great Depression hit. So that nickel stayed a nickel and it was a nickel up until 1940 or 41. And then it went to 6 cents, then 7 cents, and then from 7 it went to 9, 11, 13 cents. It went up 2 cents like that incrementally. The price increased to 33 cents, 35 cents, and then when it hit 40 cents it went up to 45, 50, 55, 60 cents.

Interviewer: What year did they put up the sign?

Spyros Dermatas: 1937. But we just refurbished it last year. At that point, it was misspelled weiners with “ei” instead of “ie.” We just left it. And the corporate name is misspelled and everything.

Interviewer: What makes Nu Way weiner so distinctly bright red?

Spyros Dermatas: It’s the casing that has the red dye, and it’s FDA approved. From the beginning, all Coney Island hot dogs were dyed red. Years ago, the FDA changed the regulations on some of the dyes, but we left them as red as possible because that was our signature, our trademark. Today, you guys can’t find a red hot dog at Kroger. I remember going to Piggly Wiggly and there were red hot dogs. But it’s not a health issue, it’s nothing; we just left them the way they were to the extent that we could under the government regulations.

Interviewer: So the Nu-Way weiner was named the best hot dog in the nation. What makes the Nu-Way weiner so different from any other hot dog?

Spyros Dermatas: It’s very different because we still sell the original Coney style hot dog from Coney Island. The weiner is grilled. First of all, it’s a beef and pork weiner. See, now all you hear is “it’s all beef,” but the original Coney Island dog was a beef and pork weiner. It’s grilled, meaning the casing is such that they stuff the sausage and the beef into it. It’s made so that it can withstand temperatures of 350 to 400 degrees on a grill and not fall apart. In other words, if you were to take a hot dog from Kroger, some of those hot dogs aren’t made to be grilled. They’re made to be boiled. I mean, the Varsity in Atlanta, when they changed their weiner in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when they quit grilling, they went to a weiner that’s meant to be boiled. They just throw it into a big pot and boil it. But if you go to New York, weiners are still made the way we make them. I was in New York last fall and they still roll them on the grill like we do.

So, to answer your question, what makes the Nu-Way weiner special is that it’s a weiner that’s grilled beef and pork with a hot dog bun that’s steamed with natural gas, meaning that you get that moisture in the bun. You know, sometimes when we’re really busy, the bun might not be steamed enough, but it’s supposed to be steamed so that it’s almost a little wet feeling. And don’t forget about our homemade chili sauce with fresh onions. That’s what makes it uniquely a true Coney Island weiner.

Interviewer: Is it more expensive that way?

Spyros Dermatas: Oh yeah. Listen, Macon is spoiled. This town, I mean when we went up in prices, we heard about it. Customers got angry. They expected it to be cheap; they grew up with it here. We were at $1.49. We didn’t have a price increase for two years. And then we went from $1.49 to $1.69, we were getting killed by food costs not making any money and alienating a lot of customers. But you know they’ll come back.

In this business, it’s all about food costs. You’re here to make a profit. You have to pay your employees, pay yourself, pay your expenses, and hopefully there is something left in the end. But someone can come in right now and get a chili-slaw dog all the way, a fry, and a drink for $4.50. You can get two dogs all the way, a fry, and drink for $6. We feel like it’s reasonable. Right now, the average ticket at a fast food chain is fighting wars and they have been on this dollar menu kick. What can those places even buy for a dollar? We don’t play that game.

Interviewer: So, other than that and trying to make a profit, what other obstacles has Nu-Way faced over the years, if any?

Spyros: I would say a major obstacle was the labor issue.  Back in the ‘60s when we grew from two stores to three, and then three to six and eight and 10, we had to hire a lot of new employees. We like to hire to promote from within, and I guess the labor issue was the key thing, trying to motivate and keep people on board. Let’s face it; in this business, young adults and even teenagers that come in here, they are not going to stay. They are part-time. They are going to move on, but we have been kind of lucky in that we got some, we got primarily females that have been with us twenty, thirty years. I can count about eight or nine right now, and these are primarily people that didn’t finish high school.  They go back to get their GED, and they have just made a career of working in a restaurant.

But the labor issue is a key obstacle, and basically other than that in the restaurant business is what you put into it.  It’s what you get out of it that’s true for full service and right now and whether you get dressed up tonight to go to Natalia’s and spend fifty dollars ahead or you come here. It’s what the owner puts into it, the way he manages his business, how he treats his employees, how he runs the block that determines the success of the business. In short, there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome.  You should be able to overcome any obstacle if your business plan makes sense.

Right now I just saw something the other day where Arby’s was bought last year by Wendy’s.  It’s one chain now and they are having a culture clash because of the average person who goes to Arby’s would spend seven fifty to eight dollars and the person that would go to Wendy’s would spend four to five dollars and the management is having a tough time integrating.  Because of that difference, they are trying to get their pricing realigned or whatever he is able to do, joint ventures or whatever.

Thank God we haven’t seen the days of the Great Depression.  Like I told you, back in the ‘20s my great uncle couldn’t get weiners and he had to sell grilled cheeses and egg sandwiches just to support his family. I hope we never see those days.  If the supplier couldn’t get the beef supplies and the pork supplies, he had to sell whatever he could to make ends meet.  But that was the Great Depression with 25% unemployment. There were soup lines in the city as there were in every city in America. I mean businesses shut down; they went out of business.

Interviewer:  When did the famous “I’d Go a Long Way for a Nu-Way” jingle come along?

Spyros Dermatas:  In the ‘70s. We hired an ad agency, a group out of Birmingham, that came up with that jingle. There is a story behind “I’d Go a Long Way for a Nu-Way.” We started using that back in the ‘70s because, before that, it was “I would walk a mile for a Nu-Way.” We still have some old paper bags that have the old slogan on them. We had to change it because we got sued by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. Have you all heard “I would walk a mile for a Camel”?

Interviewer:  No.

Spyros Dermatas:  See, y’all are too young. Camel cigarettes came to Macon, contacted us, then filed a federal case. Our attorney told us, “Give it up. There’s no way you’re going to win that.” So we had to take it off our paper bags, and that’s when we came up with “I’d go a long way for a Nu-Way,” which I think is better anyway.

Interviewer: Imagine if that happened today. There’s no way a tobacco company would be able to bully a hot dog joint out of a slogan. What about the logo?

Spyros: Yeah, the logo with the little boy with the dog. dogThat started back in the early ‘50s. There was a local Macon artist here who did that. There were actually a few local artists, three in all, who designed the logo.

Interviewer:  The Mega-Burger has a copyright on it?

Spyros Dermatas:  Yeah, we got that about thirty years ago. And thank God we did it because we caught a lot of companies infringing on it. We had a group of attorneys in Atlanta that could scan the network computers.  It’s amazing what they can do with computers.  And they found twenty restaurants using the name Mega-Burger.  And I guess you issue a cease and desist order and they have to quit using it because it belongs to us. So that is called intellectual property rights. It’s a federal trademark. We own that trademark. Not even McDonalds can take it away from us.

Interviewer:  We talked a little in class about the scramble dog, can you tell us a little about that?

Spyros Dermatas: The scramble dog started in Macon in the old pool halls. All downtowns back in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, years ago, developed a tradition of making their own homestyle chili with beans. Now, the chili sauce that we put on the hot dog is just a straight ground beef chili sauce with the spices.  The scramble dog chili has Mexican style two kinds of beans in it, like a red bean and a Mexican style chili bean.  And we served it with oyster crackers and the chili.  And if you want the mustard or onions on yours or whatever, but basically, that’s what we added to the menu.  That was not on the original menu.  The tradition there, like I said, started in pool halls, and we have so many calls for it that we just put it on the menu.  We developed our own recipe for that.  That was made from scratch too; we make that fresh.

Interviewer:  A friend from Thomasville compared these to the pool hall hot dog in Thomasville.

Spyros SpiroDermatas:  They are famous there. Yeah, Thomasville has two or three places. I’ve got a cousin in Albany. There is a place in Albany called Jimmy’s Hot Dogs. He was raised and born in Thomasville, but he bought the hot dog stand in Albany about ten years ago. It just depends on the city. You go down to Americus, and there is a place downtown called Monroe’s Hot Dogs. He has been there for forty years. It just depends, but they are mostly dying out, especially the old pool hall concept.

Here in Macon, you go down the block near Cherry Street. Both pool halls that were there when I grew up are gone. There are billiards bars, but they don’t serve the scramble dog or the hot dog like they used to, or even the pimento cheese sandwich they used to serve. Those days are gone now. Nowadays it’s just beer and pool. But some small towns have managed to hang on.

There is another story of a federal trademark on the Mega-Burger. The Mega-Burger, when I was born, was called a Big Boy. Now, ya’ll have heard of Shoney’s Big Boy, right? Here in Macon, they no longer have it, but they do in some towns. That’s a Nashville, Tennessee based company, and this happened in the ‘60s. They came to town, and we didn’t have a federal trademark on the Big Boy, just a local trademark at the courthouse where we had it registered along with Nu-Way Weiners. They took us to court and we had to quit using that, too, because they had a federal trademark. So, instead of using Big Boy we went to Mega-Burger.  Mega means large in Greek, and we have used that ever since we got the trademark.