Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — He’s been asked too many times to count over the past four years.
When will Chet’s Dog House be open again?
“Very soon,” Chet Secrist finally is able to say.
Steps to re-establish the popular West Main Street diner are being taken this month. Assisted by his mom Sandy and brother Jason, Secrist has been putting in a few hours every day, assessing inventory, reconnecting with vendors and spiffing things up.
Once the menus are updated, help is hired and the place passes requisite code inspection, Chet’s Dog House will be back in the breakfast and lunch business.
“It’s quite exciting,” Secrist said last week. “I have missed it all tremendously.”
Secrist, the third-generation owner-operator of Chet’s Dog House, closed the business temporarily in May 2009, shortly after he learned he had leukemia. At 43 years old and with wife Kristen, infant daughter Brenna and toddler son Brayden all depending on him, he had to quit working and focus full-time on fighting blood cancer and its aftermath.
All along, Secrist was been determined to get his health back and get back to work. The diner business isn’t for everyone — long days on your feet and pay that’s “slightly better than a paper route” are not its selling points, he says drolly — but it’s the only business for him.
And after spending a good portion of the past four years in relative seclusion, to protect his immune system, he’s longing for diner buzz. A sizzling grill, clanking dishes and chatty customers together are joyful noise that he can’t wait to help make again.
“There’s nothing like talking to 150 people a day, and then talking to no one,” he said. “Some people are surprised when I say I’m getting back to work, but they shouldn’t be. May 6, 2009, was my last day ... and coming back has been my goal ever since.”
Secrist is returning to a somewhat changed Chet’s Dog House. When he was forced to close its doors, friends and loyal customers rallied, pulling off a massive fundraiser for the Secrist family and debating, for a time, whether to try keeping the business going in Chet’s absence. Instead, “Chet’s Heroes” arranged a diner makeover, to give Secrist additional motivation to recover and return as soon as he could.
Bill Baier, Dave Scott, Joe Foltz and Brian Bower championed that effort, through which the diner got new tables, lighting, floor covering and wall paneling, recovered stools for the counter, rehabbed fixtures and some new appliances. The work was done in 2009, while Secrist was recovering from a bone marrow transplant.
Since then Chet’s landlord, next-door business owner Jack Martin, said he’s declined a number of offers from other business operators who wanted to rent the improved space. So long as Secrist planned on returning at some point, he had dibs on it.
“Mainly, I wanted to see (Chet’s) reopened. Everybody did,” Martin said. “He’s an institution.”
Secrist is going back to work profoundly moved by the community’s investment in him.
“It’s inspiring. To be able to come back to a restaurant like this is amazing,” he said. “I can never say ‘thank you’ enough to the people who made it happen ... . I suppose there’ll be a lot of free food for a while, for those who’ll let me.”
Secrist is aiming to reopen the diner before the start of summer. An exact date isn’t circled yet, because with the relaunch, he’s doing something he’s never done before: hiring help. He wants Chet’s Dog House to be open on its old schedule, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 to 2 Saturday, and to maintain it he’ll need a cook, a dish washer and two waitresses.
Finding the right candidates for the jobs — people who will show up ready to work before sunrise, and work hard to keep the customers happy — is his biggest worry.
“We will pray and we will see what the results are. There are good people out there, it’s just a matter of time to find them,” he said.