The tale of Lyric Hot Dogs began with Greek immigrant John Collins — 16, penniless and new to America — moving to Birmingham and eventually opening Lyric Hot Dogs & Grill in 1957. His own teenager Andrew grew up in the family business and took it over in 1971.
That tale may end soon: On Friday Birmingham Landmarks notified Collins that after 56 years, he has three months to vacate the property he occupies in the under-renovation Lyric Theatre building.
Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, came in to give Collins the news. “He said, ‘We’re going to take up this space, and you have 90 days to get out. January 31 will be your last day,’” Collins says.
He was unprepared. “It was a surprise because they’d been telling me that I was going to be staying.” He had been asking for a new lease for the past year.
Beene replies, “We never told Andrew that he was a fixture, that he would be here forever, that he was in no danger of having to move.”
Cynthia Hamilton, manager of Lyric Hot Dogs and 13-year employee, says, “[Beene] said he was working on the lease every time he came in. Andrew would say, ‘Y’all not going to put me out, are y’all?’ ‘No, we’re working on it, we’re working on it. We got you.’”
For his part, Beene says that over the past year Collins has talked to him several times about his lease. “I know he wanted to cement his place there, but I did not tell him that he would be able to stay or that he would have to go because I didn’t know that.”
Birmingham Landmarks acquired the Lyric Theatre and surrounding space in 1993. According to the original lease agreement Beene showed Weld, Collins’ first lease with them, a three-year agreement, dates to 1994.
The document’s holdover clause specifies that if no agreement was reached at the end of the term, the lease would become a month-to-month or year-to-year. The last written documentation between the parties appears to be a letter from 2007 notifying the tenant of a 5 percent rent increase.
When questioned about Collins’ inquiries regarding the lease over the past year, Beene says he replied, “Our attorney [Danny Evans] is handling that.”
“Couple of times he said, ‘I don’t know. See Danny,’” Hamilton says. “Two out of 10 times maybe.”
Danny Evans, local attorney and Birmingham Landmark’s chairman of the board, says Collins did talk to him about getting a new lease but that the Lyric renovation plans were uncertain. “When you do a renovation of this scope, you go through a variety of different plans,” Evans says. “Each phase of the architectural planning changes things.”
The planning must include dressing rooms, concessions, and bathrooms, Matt Jennings, project architect and director of historic preservation at the project’s Phoenix-based architectural firm Westlake, Reed and Leskosky, says. “We have a lot of stuff to get in a tiny, little space.”
Another major consideration of the project is egress. Jennings says that before the adjacent furniture warehouse, a building Birmingham Landmarks also owns, was built, patrons could exit the theater from both sides. After the warehouse was built, the structure cut off all exits from that side of the building, creating an egress problem.
“In the back where the [Lyric Hot Dog] restaurant is currently is where we’re locating a new stair,” Jennings says. “This was the only place that makes sense to have our new exit.”
Their first option, though, was not to take over the retail space at all. Originally the plan was to move up the office building. “But when they did cost estimates for what it was going to cost,” Jennings says, “it’s just way beyond the current fundraising levels.
“One of the other options was blowing out the back wall of the theater and moving into that space, which would have been fantastic,” Jennings says. It would not have required Collins and Lyric Hot Dogs to vacate, but it was too expensive.
Also too expensive was using the basement for bathrooms, as was in one of the original plans, because they cannot afford to redo the elevators.
“It’s much easier to build on the first floor than it is to go up or down,” Jennings says. “[The current plan] is the cheapest way we could do things and that’s the $7 million goal.”
WRL Structural Engineer Stephanie Banfield says, “It’s hard to do what they’re trying to do with the small pot of money that they have.”
Currently the pot holds almost $5.9 million, and Birmingham Landmarks is hoping to reach its $7 million goal, in part for potential New Market Tax Credits. “We hope we can get some tax credits, but that’s not for sure,” Beene says. While not for sure, it is possible to receive another million if the $7 million goal is met.
The additional money, however, would not help with the construction budget. “There’s project budget, and there’s construction budget,” Jennings explains. “For our construction purposes, we’re looking at $7 million, but then they have things like lights, technical boards, audiovisual equipment; that’s where the extra million dollars comes in.”
The time to do something is now, though. “This building is almost at the point where if you don’t do something within the next 10 years or so, it’s going to be gone,” Jennings says. “Let it get too close to the end, and it just becomes impossible to bring it back.”
In order to bring it back, the Lyric Theatre will be using the Lyric Hot Dogs space and the adjacent two others.
The Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham, which just moved from the Young & Vann Supply Co. building into the space between Lyric Hot Dogs and First City Mortgage, will be out after its lease expires at the end of December.
That came as no surprise to the Cultural Alliance, the agency behind Birmingham 365. CEO and President Buddy Palmer says, “It was made clear to us by the [Birmingham] Landmarks folks that the eventual goal in the renovation of the Lyric was space for dressing rooms, that they have no room behind the space.”
Ray Hyde, manager of First City Mortgage — also having to move –was surprised, though. “I didn’t think it was coming along quite so quickly,” he says.
First City Mortgage’s initial lease was a one-year in 2006, after which it converted to a month-to-month. Unlike Collins, Hyde never asked about his lease. “I didn’t communicate with anyone about it. I just paid the rent.”
“Eventually,” he says, “we knew something was going to happen down here, but I just didn’t see it happening in 90 days.”
Neither did Collins. He first found out he might be moving after finding a schematic online and seeing that his restaurant no longer existed. “I still thought it was a couple or three years off,” he says.
Beene, though, feels those tenants who have to move will have adequate time. “We’re only required to give 30 days so we thought 90 days was very generous,” he says.
The tenants were not informed at an earlier date because the plans were not final, Beene says. “I talked to the architects in September about notifying those tenants and they said, ‘Wait ‘til we finish schematic drawings.’”
Beene says he only knew the information two weeks before he delivered it to the tenants. He says the information became public when Palmer commented about the Cultural Alliance’s move to The Birmingham News. “We had not had a chance to talk to our tenants about it except [Palmer],” Beene says.
He continues, “I’m not saying that nothing bad happened. We don’t like this at all.”
Ideally, Birmingham Landmarks would prefer all three spaces remain available to its tenants for sentimental and financial reasons. Beene asks, “Why in our right minds would we run three rent payers out unless it was absolutely critical to the development of the Lyric? We wouldn’t.”
“I’m very sorry Andrew’s having to move,” Evans says. “I’ve eaten hundreds of hot dogs at his place. Everybody at the [Alabama] Theatre has.”
Despite being sorry, Evans asserts that Collins did have an idea about having to move. “The bottom line is that he’s known about the renovation.”
Beene agrees. “During our fundraiser efforts the last couple years, we saw Andrew buy a bar, Metro Bar, and we thought he realized he’s going to have to move.”
Collins says that wasn’t why he bought the bar. That was merely a good opportunity and he took it, turning Metro Bar into the Collins Bar on Second Avenue North.
As for Lyric Hot Dogs, Evans and Beene both say they have spoken to Collins about relocating. Evans specifies the Lichter and Parisian buildings, Beene the Whitmire Lofts.
Collins denies the conversations. “They keep saying they’ve talked to me about moving to other places. They just now told me I’m getting kicked out.”
Beene, though, says he would not do anything differently. “We would have to do it exactly the same way.” Beene feels they did everything possible to save the three spaces, including Lyric Hot Dogs. “I know I’m supposed to be the bad guy,” he says, referring to comments on Facebook. “Until they’re the ones who have to make the decision, it’s real easy to take potshots at people, to call people names, ‘Liar!’”
The backlash on Facebook has been intense.
Some are suspicious. Marc Parker says, “My journalistic instincts smell a rat in the cupboard.”
Some are angry. “Boycott Lyric Fine Arts Theatre — nothing but lies,” Stephani Fifles comments.
J. Matthew Cobb agrees: “Won’t be supporting Lyric [Theatre] anymore. Nothing but a bad game of Monopoly.”
Some are sad. “Lyric Hot Dogs will be missed,” Vicki Blackwood Crowe succinctly puts it.
Others hope for the future. “I hope he can relocate even if it does appear he is being forced to do so,” Rebecca Bittle Whitten says.
“I don’t want to relocate because it costs so much money to relocate,” Collins says. He also cites nearing retirement as a reason: “At my age, maybe it’s just meant to be.”
He would be happy if one or both of his daughters opened a Lyric Hot Dogs in the future.
One of the daughters has thought about it. “My husband and I have talked about it over the weekend. We certainly don’t want to make any hasty decisions, but who knows?” says Collins’ daughter Leah Massengale, who currently works in human resources. She said Vestavia Hills or Cahaba Heights could be potential locations.
Her sister, Jennifer Armstrong, is not opposed to a joint-sister venture, as she is more a greeter than a cook, she claims. She thinks that with the history, a downtown location would probably be the best, though she is currently a Montgomery schoolteacher and says, “My heart lies with kids.”
Collins’ heart lies with his customers. “I think they’ll feel a loss,” he says, because I’ve been here so long, and I have so many customers.”
Collins will miss them too. More than anything, he says, he will miss the daytime customers who go home after work — customers he is unlikely to see at the Collins Bar.
With regard to his dealings with Birmingham Landmarks, Collins simply wishes that the possible impact of different plans on his restaurant had been transparent all along. That lack of transparency cut the most. Collins says, “It’s like they had a knife in my back, twisting it.”
For now the tension is dissipating. At a meeting arranged by REVIVE Birmingham on Tuesday afternoon, Beene, Collins, his daughter Leah Massengale, and both Fran Godchaux and Atticus Rominger of REVIVE Birmingham met for discussion. A joint statement, currently being drafted by Rominger, is expected to come out of the meeting.
Mostly the meeting consisted of Beene and Collins talking, Collins says, “to bury the hatchet.” He was glad they met. “I don’t want to be getting all this negative publicity. It’s just gotten out of hand.”
Beene agrees. “All this negativism has opened both our eyes that that’s not what we want for Birmingham and that’s not what Birminghamians want.”
If the Facebook comments are any indication, Birmingham will speak for itself.