Local history is just a memory of our youth, our old haunts, our stomping grounds. There’s a sadness when we lose those places, because we know it’s ourselves we’re losing, our former lives. This happens everywhere and so it happens here in Chapel Hill too.
But some memories don’t go away. Some you can even visit.
Step into Sutton’s Drug Store on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill and you will feel it. It’s not that time has stopped, it’s that time has not been allowed to diminish this beautiful artifact of Chapel Hill lore, not for a solid 100 years. This calls for a celebration, and that is what they’re having: a 100th birthday party on April 12th.
Sutton’s is nothing fancy. A boilerplate description of it goes something like this: Old-fashioned diner near the Chapel Hill campus, offering a great variety of food including burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, salads and wraps. But that’s not the half of it. You can sit in a booth or on a stool at the counter, and everyone is welcome: students, local business owners, and megastars. Rob Lowe felt right at home when he popped in at Sutton’s Drug Store a few years back with his wife and son. “He said his father used to run a place like this back in Ohio,” former manager and current owner Don Pinney says. “He said it brought back memories.”
Memories aren’t on the menu. But they should be.
Sutton’s is virtually wall-papered with photos of Tar Heels past and present, many of them some of the best basketball players to play the game. Michael Jordan, for instance. Lennie Rosenbluth. Visitors can sit on one of the old, squeaky barstools around the lunch counter, a chance you could end up rubbing elbows with one of the legends.
Sutton’s was opened in 1923 by Lynwood and Lucy Sutton. In 1965, it was sold to Elliott Brummitt with the understanding that the store wouldn’t change, a principle that was extended to John Woodard when he bought the store in 1977. According to the Daily Tar Heel, Woodard also earned the business of many famous customers, including actors Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, members of Bill Clinton’s presidential staff and, of course, Michael Jordan. The proof is on the walls. But you don’t have to be famous to get up there. The tradition started in 1981 when Woodard posted a picture of a group of morning regulars. Because everyone is a star at Sutton’s.
The pharmacy is gone now, but the grill remains.
The grill itself has a story.
Don Pinney has been a part of Sutton’s since he was 13 years old and has done it all at Sutton’s: cleaning, waiting on customers, cooking, managing. Now he owns the place. He learned his cooking skills from a Sutton’s staple, Willie Mae Houk, who made him grilled cheeses when he was knee-high to a grasshopper. Pinney points to a bent frying pan mounted on the wall behind the counter.
“She cooked in that same pan for 32 years,” Pinney says. The plaque beneath it reads: “In memory, Willie Mae Houk, 32 years of service, Sutton’s Drug Store, 1956-1988.”
Customers dine at the counter or at one of the red-and-yellow booths; seating maxes out at 60. The laminated menu lists items that remind you you’re in a Chapel Hill institution. There’s the Dean Dome Deluxe (chicken salad, Swiss cheese, lettuce, and spicy mustard) or My Blue Heaven (roast beef, Provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise). But it’s the burgers that keep Sutton’s staff hopping.
“We’re really here for breakfast just to get prepared for lunch ’cause it takes a long time to patty up 300 hamburgers,” Pinney says. Each one, he adds, weighs precisely 6.2 ounces, perhaps the perfect size for a grilled burger at a 100-year-old diner.
Sutton’s continues to serve burgers and fries because of the love and stewardship of some wonderful people, the two most recent being John Woodward and Don Pinney, both of whom have shouldered the weight of a Chapel Hill institution on their shoulders for decades.
And now it’s time for cake.
Sutton’s will celebrate their 100th anniversary with a party. Come join the party on April 12th from 11-2:30 for birthday celebrations. For details, visit their Facebook site:
Sutton’s Drug Store
159 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.