Before last month, the idea of buying a restaurant — much less, a hot dog diner — had never crossed Debbie Clark’s mind.
But then, at a party, she was talking to Farron Smith, co-owner of Wytheville’s Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs, and suddenly the idea didn’t seem so crazy.
Debbie and her husband, Dale, bought Skeeter’s from Smith, and her husband, Bill, on May 30 — three decades from the day that the Smiths purchased it from the founding Umberger family. The Clarks hope to reopen the iconic diner sometime this month, Debbie said.
“I took my kids by Skeeter’s once or twice a week when they were in preschool, and it was like one of their favorite treats to get to go in there and ... twist around on the stools and have a Skeeterdog,” Debbie said. “I wanted that little piece of Wytheville history; I think that’s really what prompted me to buy it.”
In fact, interest was intense. People from six states and Washington, D.C., inquired about buying Skeeter’s, according to the Smiths. But a local family won out.
“It is very satisfying knowing that Skeeter’s World Famous Hotdogs will continue with the Clarks who treasure it as much as we have for the past 30 years,” Farron wrote in an email. “We are confident that Skeeter’s is in the hands of a family that will continue this Wytheville tradition for years to come.”
Debbie Clark declined to name the purchase price, but said she will lease the restaurant space at 165 E. Main St. from the Smiths.
The Smiths will keep ownership of the building, where a decade ago they founded the Edith Bolling Wilson Museum honoring the only Appalachia-born first lady. Wilson was born upstairs in the pre-Civil War structure.
Debbie said her son, David, will manage Skeeter’s.
“We’re kind of just going to keep the place as is,” David said. “When you’re there, you’re looking to sit down at an old-timey Masonite bar, get your pink weenie served to you on a napkin and be able to eat with friends in less than 10 minutes — and while you’re there have good conversation.”
The Clarks are also working on opening Seven Sisters Brewery, named for the seven peaks of Little Walker Mountain visible from the city.
The brewery, which Debbie said is David’s passion project , will be located two blocks away from Skeeter’s in the old R.P. Johnson & Sons building, another property owned by the Smiths.
The Clarks and the Smiths have done business together for many years. Bill Smith developed offices for Debbie’s former physical therapy business, Blue Ridge Rehab Services, which she sold to a larger company.
“The Smiths are just very supportive of us; we share a lot of values,” Debbie said. “With all the work that Farron’s done for the [Edith] Bolling Wilson Museum and all they’ve put into the [Bolling Wilson Hotel], you can really tell that keeping that downtown thriving, that’s important to them. And it’s important to us, too.”
In fact, the 9,600-square-foot Johnson building may be divided into space for up to four businesses, with an entertainment stage, Bill Smith wrote in an email.
“We believe this development is a premium opportunity for: restaurant (BBQ, etc.), coffee shop, music venue, artisan center, outdoor outfitters, bicycle shop, etc.,” Bill wrote. “There are no better locations in the region for most any business to open in a ‘complex’ that offers the high exposure, easy access, high traffic count, access to [businesses] like the Bolling Wilson Hotel, and soon the revived Millwald Theater.”
A farmers market is also being considered at the location, and next door to the brewery plans are to build a 2,100-square-foot CrossFit facility, Bill wrote.
In addition to the planned redevelopment, Debbie said the vision and hard work of the town council and other business owners gives her confidence in her own investments.
“We know there is a community — there are other business owners, there are town officials — there are just so many folks who’ll support us,” Debbie said.
During the week, Debbie works as a physical therapist at Princeton Transitional Care in Johnson City, Tennessee. Her husband, Dale, is chief operating officer at Indian Path Community Hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee, she said. But the couple have lived in Wythe County for more than 35 years while raising their three children. They still spend weekends at the family home just outside town. Now those trips back to Virginia will likely include shifts at Skeeter’s.
But a doctorate in physical therapy doesn’t necessarily prepare one for coping with the lunch rush.
“It’s going to be a big learning curve for me,” Debbie said. “I’ve had years of education, but no Skeeterdog training.”
Luckily, she said two previous Skeeter’s staff members will return to work at the restaurant.
E.N. Umberger opened his namesake store in 1925, where he sold groceries, garden seeds, penny candy and 5-cent hot dogs. Eventually the wieners became the focus.
When E.N. Jr. — nicknamed “Skeeter” by his mother — took over, the hot dogs became “Skeeterdogs,” and the restaurant went from The E.N. Umberger Store to “Skeeter’s.” The Smiths bought it in 1989 and sold it in May.
For more information on Skeeter’s re-opening date, visit https://www.facebook.com/SkeetersWorldFamousHotdogs. To learn about Seven Sisters Brewery, visit www.facebook.com/7sistersbrew.