By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Inside the narrow alley-shaped storefront of Sam’s on 18th Street is a wall that marks four decades of business. Plaques commemorate owner Sammy Graphos’ award-winning hot dogs and hamburgers as well as his and wife Sue’s involvement in the MS Walk. Photos of Graphos’ grandchildren and customers’ Christmas card photos are updated each year. There are signed photos of Bear Bryant and Mason the tornado dog, whom customer Dr. Bill Lamb rescued after the April 2011 tornados.
Forty-five-year Homewood resident Graphos, 70, has been working behind the grill at Sam’s Super Samwiches for 43 years. The first three years he co-owned the restaurant with his brother Pete, then called Sneaky Pete’s, before selling out that franchise.
Graphos now serves the kids of the kids who grew up eating his hot dogs “regular” (sauce, sauerkraut, mustard and onions) or “special” (with spiced ground beef) and his fresh-made hamburger patties, also topped with sauce.
Hot dog restaurants like Pete’s, Gus’ and Lyric all coined a similar sauce when they opened in the mid-1900s, but Graphos said his is the best.
Starting at 6 a.m., regulars stop by for a breakfast sandwich of bacon, egg and cheese on a bun or whole wheat bread.
“We have the best bacon in Birmingham,” Graphos said of the specially sliced pork.
And he serves the only “samwiches” in town until 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Graphos knows most anyone’s order when they walk in just as he knows the street where he’s worked six days a week for four decades.
“I am the unofficial mayor of 18th Street,” he said. “If anyone wants to know what’s going on, they ask me.”
Although Shaia’s and Homewood Hobby have been around as long as Sam’s, Graphos has seen shops come and go in the area over the years.
“SOHO changed the dynamics of the area,” he said. “There are so many more people now.”
Sam’s recently switched to Coco Cola products, but other than that not much has changed in 40 years.
Graphos’ red 1995 truck has around 50,000 miles on it; he mostly drives back and forth from the restaurant to his house, which is a half-mile away. And his house is only two blocks from where his wife, Sue, grew up. Sue attended Shades Cahaba School just as did their children, Ted and Suzanne. This year Ted’s children, Kate and Sam, are in fourth and second grade, respectively, at Shades Cahaba.
Kate and Sam love to come help at the restaurant. You’ll find photos of them on Sam’s wall.
“They think their grandfather is famous because his picture was in the paper,” Graphos said.
Graphos loves to welcome the rest of the after-school crowd as well. He says he is better with kids than adults.
Each holiday season for the past 12 years the fifth grade art class at Shades Cahaba paints Sam’s storefront window with Christmas flair.
Customer Heidi Beasley said Graphos is her kids’ in-town grandfather too. Beasley met her husband, Brad, at Sam’s in 1997. Brad had been eating samwiches since he was around 10 years old, but it was Heidi’s first time in Sam’s. Today their whole family comes in almost daily.
Graphos has overnighted hot dogs to California and served them as part of a lifelong customer’s wedding buffet, where they were the first food to disappear.
His employees are as loyal as his customers. Behind the grill, George Derzis has been grilling burgers at Sam’s for 25 years, and Homewood native Paul Cook has been working there for the past five.
Forty-three years into his career at Sam’s, Graphos still eats a hot dog most every day. He has no plans to go anywhere, he said. “You’ll find me on the grill (when I go).”
Sam’s Super Samwiches
2812 18th Street South
Monday- Saturday, 6:30 a.m.-4 p.m.