Everyone knows Tommy
Tommy Stevenson, 74, has been at work since “quarter ’til 3 this morning,” mixing up fresh sausage, pumpkin spice pancake batter and his legendary fried chicken. By lunchtime, the 350-seat dining room at Tommy’s Country Ham House is full: a group of police officers, businesspeople in suits, men in jeans and work boots. Everyone feels comfortable, everyone loves the food and, it seems, everyone knows Tommy.
After 30 years in business, that personal touch is what sets his restaurant apart amid intense competition. With revenue growth of more than 10 percent every year he’s been operating, “we’ve never had a lull at all,” Stevenson said. “Business has been great.”
He attributes that steady growth to the relationships he and his staff have built with customers.
“You have to show people you appreciate their business,” he said. “There are 1,300 restaurants in the city of Greenville, so it’s an uphill battle. You have to do your best job all the time.”
Stevenson graduated from Furman University with a physical education degree in 1965 and then worked in construction and restaurant equipment sales. Through his contact with area restaurants, he learned that the Country Ham House, then on Buncombe Street, was for sale, and since he always loved cooking and people, he decided to take the plunge.
He quickly built up the clientele through his combination of homestyle cooking and friendly customer service. It was here that he began his tradition of stopping at each table to speak with customers and thank them for their business – something he still does every day.
By 1997, high rent prices in his former strip-mall location led him to buy two acres on Rutherford Street. He drew the plans himself to create the open ambiance he was seeking.
“After selling equipment to restaurants, I had seen how so many were chopped up, with different sections,” he said. “I wanted it to be more family-style, where everyone knew everyone.”
The result is a wide-open dining room where groups of all sizes can gather. Along with couples and families, each day brings a steady rotation of prayer groups, retirees from Cryovac or Liberty Life, Furman football players, high school reunion gatherings, law enforcement lunches and countless others.
The spacious interior – along with the diverse groups of diners – has also led to Tommy’s reputation as the place for politicians to meet and greet on the campaign trail. “We like to kid everyone that the road to the White House is through the Ham House,” Stevenson said.
George W. Bush stayed for more than three hours before becoming the Republican nominee in 2000, and Mitt Romney stopped by on his way to winning the nomination in 2012. With the 2016 election still a year away, Tommy’s has already been visited by seven presidential candidates, including Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina.
Stevenson said it’s important to him that “everything you eat today was made today.” That’s why he can be found in the kitchen each morning long before dawn. From the beginning, he’s been dedicated to changing his menu daily “so people won’t get tired of eating here,” he said.
Daily specials like pumpkin spice pancakes, homemade soups and strawberry pudding ensure that there is always something new to try. But Stevenson has found that customers also like to come back to their favorites, including the country ham and all varieties of homemade biscuits. He’s also happy to work with anyone on specific dietary needs.
“Thirty years ago, you didn’t hear too much about steamed vegetables and cooking healthy,” he said. “But now we do. You can eat healthy here if you want to. If people have a health problem, we want to help them.”
The biggest challenge over the years has been making sure his staff is happy. “The help is what makes this business,” Stevenson said. “The waitresses going to the tables, the cooks doing their best. So the hardest thing is making them aware of what needs to be done to keep our business the way it is and make it grow.”
Much of the 26-person staff has been with him for years and know the customers almost as well as he does. One employee, cook James Wesley, has been with the restaurant for 32 years, starting two years before Stevenson bought it.
At 74, Stevenson is often asked if he is close to retiring. He drives 30 miles to the restaurant every day and works 75-hour weeks, seven days a week, taking only 10 days off per year. He loves golf, but manages to play only a few afternoons per month. But he can’t imagine living any other way.
“As long as my health is good, I’ll be here,” he said. “You don’t realize how old you are when you stay busy all the time.”
Though he has four children and 11 grandchildren, they have followed other career paths and don’t plan on going into the restaurant business.
His prime location has led to several offers to buy the property.
“I’m sure the way Greenville is growing, they’d tear the Ham House down and probably put apartments or something here,” he said. “But I just don’t want to leave the people who have been eating here all these years. I hope I can continue to have good health and good business and make people happy. There is a point in life where you have to let go… but I’m not at that point yet.”