Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the February edition of Park Cities People.
Forty years in Dallas have done nothing to soften Ken Harkness’ accent, which was shaped by a childhood on Long Island and in New Jersey. Those East Coast locales are also where he acquired his hunger for hoagies.
So in 1973, while visiting his sister and brother-in-law in Big D, Harkness sought out a succulent sandwich. But things were much different back then. There wasn’t a Jersey Mike’s, Jimmy John’s, or Quiznos on every corner.
“I went out to the only sub shop in Dallas at the time, and it was, uh, it was pretty horrific,” he said with a laugh. “It was like going back east and trying to get good barbecue 40 years ago or good Mexican food.”
That awful meal gave him a great idea. Harkness had recently earned an MBA from Rutgers, but he didn’t relish the idea of becoming an accountant. What if he went into business for himself?
He negotiated a year’s lease for an Asbury Street space near SMU that previously housed a clothing store called Union Jack. But his landlord didn’t know jack about subs, so Harkness made him one at his sister’s house. It took one bite to seal the deal.
“He said, ‘I think this’ll go,’” Harkness recalled. “It had a unique taste. Nobody was used to the separate oil and wine vinegar.”
New York Subway opened its doors on Feb. 1, 1974. (The name would be shortened 19 years later after a legal battle with the national Subway chain.) He opened a second location downtown in August 1974, followed by a third in Denton the following April. By July 1976, he owned the building on Asbury.
University Park attorney Jeff Piepgras worked at the original location in the early ’80s as an SMU student.
“Back in the day, that was the only game in town,” said Piepgras, who still eats there twice a week. “Now, that whole strip center, from 7-Eleven all the way up to Chick-fil-A, you have a lot of options. But you used to hate working lunch, because they’d be lining up out the door to get sandwiches. It was like that probably from 10:30 to 1:30, just a constant line of people.”
The most New York Sub shops Harkness ever had open at one time was eight. But he’s back down to just his original site these days. Expansion brought too many headaches.
Denton: Burned by thefts he was sure were “an inside job,” Harkness fired 18 employees en masse. He hired back only those who passed a lie-detector test.
College Station: When he demanded that a franchisee catch up on a year’s worth of late payments, the man grabbed him around the throat.
Norman, Okla.: Harkness granted a franchise to a couple who subsequently had marital problems. “It got to ‘whoever gets to the cash register first,’” he said.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, Harkness admits to micromanaging the other eateries because he cares so much about the brand.
“I wanted every one of them to be the same as this store,” he said from the corner booth he often uses as an office. “So if you closed your eyes and you took a bite out of a sandwich, you couldn’t tell which New York Sub you were in. And you can’t do it; you can’t. Nobody’s going to care about your business like you do. This is my baby.”
And now that baby is about to turn 40.
“I’m actually flabbergasted that I’ve lasted this long. If I had known that … you see this logo right here?” he asked, pointing to his New York Sub shirt. “I would have got this tattooed on my arm 40 years ago. But if I had done that, I probably would have been out of business in a year.”
A MENU OF STABILITY
We asked the foodies who read D Magazine‘s SideDish blog to help us figure out how many other Dallas restaurants have had one owner at the same location for at least 40 years. Here’s some of what we found out:
- Karl Kuby has owned Kuby’s Sausage House at 6601 Snider Plaza since 1961.
- Ed Lowe has owned Celebration Restaurant at 4503 W. Lovers Lane since 1971.
- The Dickey family – starting with Travis, followed by sons Roland and Travis Jr., and grandson Roland Jr. – has owned Dickey’s Barbecue Pit at 4610 N. Central Expressway since 1941.
- Four generations of the Campisi family have sold pizza at the former “Egyptian Lounge” at 5610 E. Mockingbird Lane since 1950.