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HUNTINGTON - The story is as American as the food it serves.
Two men who have known each other since childhood are working together to bring a new restaurant to downtown Huntington.
Teammates on the basketball team Bryan Pyle, Vinson High School class of 1981, and Greg George, Vinson High School class of 1980, hadn't seen each other or even spoken in more than 30 years. Their careers were as different as the area of the country in which they reside. But, the 700 miles separating Pyle and George can be traveled rather quickly over the Internet.
"I actually remember Greg George from about the fourth or fifth grade," Pyle said. "We became closer friends when we played basketball together for Coach Don Smith at Vinson High School. Greg graduated a year ahead of me and I lost track of him for a long time. Facebook is actually responsible for reuniting us 34 years later. We had been talking for several months when Charlie Graingers came up. It sounded like just what we had been looking for."
George is one of the owners of the franchise company that oversees development and marketing for hot dog and barbecue restaurant Charlie Graingers. Pyle recently accepted an early retirement package after nearly 30 years as sales manager for Valvoline. Both men went to Marshall University and left Huntington after graduation - George to North Carolina and Pyle to Texas and then Pennsylvania.
Pyle visited George a little more than a year ago to discuss buying a Charlie Graingers franchise.
"I flew to North Carolina and took a look at Charlie Graingers and decided it was something I wanted to do," Pyle said. "I see it as not only a chance to do something different, but also a chance to come home to Huntington."
Charlie Graingers will open in early summer at 3rd Avenue and 8th Street as part of the Jim Weiler and Phil Nelson-owned Capital Venture Corporation's $6.65 million plan to redevelop the 800 block of downtown from shuttered bars and clubs into a market, restaurants, living spaces and offices.
"Knowing Greg really helped me decide to do this," Pyle said. "Doing business with people you know creates an automatic element of trust, and for me if there's no trust, there's no business. People buy from people and with trust already in place. We didn't have to build our relationship from the ground up."
Although the endeavor will bring Pyle to Huntington, George will be back in his hometown in spirit.
"I think it's really something that two old friends who hadn't seen or spoken to each other in 35 years get together and work to bring something to their hometown," George said. "This is a great chance for Bryan to come home and become part of and give back to the community. It will be the one of the happiest days of my life when that store opens in Huntington, knowing a business I am a part of is in my hometown."
While not the owner of the restaurant, George said he's just happy to be involved in some way.
George sold the first Charlie Graingers franchise in early summer of 2015. Around 150 restaurants are now set to open in eight states.
"We will open anywhere from two to five stores every month for the rest of my life," George said.
George helps restaurants become franchises when people inquire through Emerging Franchises, a company he operates with Charlie Graingers CEO Jason Nista, which specializes in expanding young brands and mom-and-pop businesses. At that point, George helps business owners find the best location, assists in lease negotiations, connects him or her with a national supply chain and ensures the location opens quickly. He has worked previously as a franchise developer for Port Java City, The Fuzzy Peach and Shuckin' Shack.
The Charlie Graingers story began in 1939 in Wilmington, North Carolina, with Charlie and Anne Grainger's hot dog deli drive-in called Peacock Alley.
Louis North purchased the site of Peacock Alley in 2012. He demolished the dilapidated and condemned buildings and began rebuilding. The new Peacock Alley opened in 2013, serving the same hot dogs and southern cooking as the original restaurant. Because of copyright issues, the name was changed to Charlie Graingers in 2015 to honor its legendary founder.
"Everything on the menu is high quality," George said. "The concept of Charlie Graingers is lunch only, but we usually still serve 200 to 300 people a day Monday through Saturday. Customers spend an average of eight-to-12 minutes at Charlie Graingers, it's a fast-moving, get-in-and-get-out place."
North founded Charlie Graingers' with the mindset owner-operators should have a life outside their restaurant, and as a result its business model is to operate from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. The idea behind being downtown is being accessible to the lunch-going business people, students and everyone who works downtown and typically walk to lunch, Pyle said. Pyle said Charlie Graingers' low startup costs and 29-hour operating week were appealing to someone who recently retired.
"Downtown is getting busier every time I come back to Huntington," he said. "I will stick with the concept of lunch initially and see where it goes from there."
Also included in the business model is ease of operation with an easy-to-execute menu including seven sandwiches or bowls, 15 types of hot dogs, and homemade soups and sides. Charlie Graingers will start with three to five full-time employees.
Starting a business in his hometown after retirement is one thing, Pyle said, but that business being part of his hometown is another.
"This gives me the chance to come home, be closer to family and make a visible difference in the community," Pyle said. "The plan is to get involved in a lot of organizations and local charities."
Pyle met his wife, Donna, who is originally from Greenbrier County, his freshman year at Marshall in 1981. They became best friends almost immediately and started dating a couple years later. They married in 1995.
Although a lease has been signed with Capital Ventures, the restaurant's actual faade won't exist until renovations on the building are complete in about six weeks, Pyle said.
"We don't want our opening to be a really big deal," Pyle said. "We will have more of a soft opening."
The timing could not have been better, Pyle said, recalling a time a few years ago when such an endeavor in downtown Huntington would not have been as enticing.
"If life hadn't been breathed back into downtown Huntington, I don't think I would have considered doing this," he said. "Downtown is coming back to life and I am excited to be a part of it."
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