It all began in 1932, when the husband and wife team of John Louis and Gertrude Mandt opened the first drive-in restaurant in Huntington. They purchased a little piece of land at 2445 Fifth Avenue and built, at a cost of $1,750, a tiny orange building that still stands today. The menu consisted of only two items: Stewart’s Root Beer and popcorn. Sales for the first day totaled an unimpressive 50 cents.
Hoping to do better the next year, the Mandts added hotdogs to the menu, complete with Gertrude’s mouth-watering chili sauce. Today, the business and the little orange building are still going strong. And so is Gertrude’s mouth-watering sauce, still prepared from a secret recipe closely guarded by her great grandson, John Mandt Jr., the drive-in’s fourth generation owner.
Business improved and the Mandts’ son Harry and his wife Isabelle moved from Ohio to help with the business. In 1942 J.L. Mandt passed away and his wife Gertrude retired. Following her retirement, Harry and Isabelle became the second generation to own and operate the Little Orange Drive-In.
From the day it served its first hot dog, the drive-in purchased its meat from S.S. Logan Packing Co. and its buns from Heiner’s Bakery. Today it still does so, continuing a relationship between the three Huntington businesses that spans the generations.
The World War II years were tough. Food items were strictly rationed. The drive-in needed sugar to make its famous root beer. And of course it needed a regular supply of meat. The black market in food items was widespread and the Mandts easily could have turned to it for what they needed. They refused to do so. Instead, when they had used up their yearly quota, they shut down.
Through all that adversity, Harry and Isabelle persevered and, once the war was over, business really began to pick up. They worked long hard hours, sacrificing a normal family life in order to build the drive-into the widely respected business it has become today.
In 1951, at age 13, their son, John Mandt Sr., began working with his parents. After serving his country in the U.S. Marine Corps, he returned to work in the family business. When his parents retired in the late 1970s, he became the third generation to own and operate the Little Orange Drive-In. Challenged by the proliferation of chain restaurants in the Huntington area, John felt in order to maintain their market share he needed to expand. Beginning in 1979 and continuing through 1998 additional locations were added.
Like his father, John Mandt Jr. began working at the drive-in at age 13. That was in the summer of 1976. After attending college at Marshall University, he followed in the footsteps of his great-grandparents, his grandparents and his father, working to continue and expand the family business. He was instrumental in assisting his father during the restaurant’s expansion years.
In 1988, John Jr. had an idea and made a visit to Marshall University’s Athletic Director to pitch the premise that Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs should be the “official” hot dog of Marshall University Sports. Marshall liked the idea of combining two Huntington institutions. From that point to the present, Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs have become a favorite of Marshall fans at every sporting event. Sodexo Sports now operates Marshall’s food services and through Sodexo “Stewart’s Thunder Dogs” continue to be a big fan favorite.
In addition, John Jr. took the popular restaurant in new directions. He developed a catering division for Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs that now caters parties and company events throughout the Tri-State Area. And he developed a web site that offers UPS delivery of the drive-in’s tasty hot dogs anywhere in the world. Orders have come from all 50 states, as well as Germany, Italy, Iraq and South Korea.
In 2005, John Jr. in collaboration with the management at Iheart Radio founded, “The West Virginia Hot Dog Festival.” Held the last Saturday of July at Huntington’s Pullman Square, the festival is a fund-raiser for the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital at Cabell Huntington Hospital. So far, more than $150,000 has been raised to assist the hospital’s young patients.
John Mandt Sr. retired from actively managing Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs in 2004. John Jr., the fourth generation, now owns and operates the business along with his children -- who may become the fifth generation of the Mandt family to carry on the tradition.
James E. Casto