Time-Tested restaurants: What it takes to last 50 years in the Upstate

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Greenville restaurant
Local classics like Northgate Soda Shop have stood the test of time in an industry that is notorious for quick closures and short tenures. Photo by Irina Rice

What are the ingredients that make up a successful restaurant? A secret family recipe? A pinch of good marketing? A hot location? Low prices? Once a successful restaurant is crafted, will it age to perfection or grow stale?

The Journal identified several Upstate restaurants that have been serving food for more than 50 years and asked their owners what it takes to make it in this line of work. The response? Relationships and dedicated service are the bread and butter that every one of these restaurants has perfected.

Northgate Soda Shop

With 72 years under its belt, Northgate Soda Shop is among the oldest restaurants in Greenville. Photo by Irina Rice

Ren and Iris Bell just celebrated, on Oct. 1, their 10th anniversary as the owners of Northgate Soda Shop. Ren Bell credits the restaurant’s longevity to relationships.

“You cannot run a place like this from afar,” he says. “You gotta entertain people. You gotta talk to them. You gotta learn their names and they feel like, ‘These guys know me,’ and they’ll come back in the door. It’s worked for us, anyway.”

It’s worked for 72 years to be exact, making Northgate Soda Shop, which is located on North Main Street, one of the oldest continually serving restaurants in Greenville.

“Every week I get new customers,” Ren Bell says. “It’s been good for us to be in this location, because it’s on the outskirts of town, without the hustle and bustle of downtown.

He counts customers from the North Main community, “within 5 or 6 miles” of the store, as his regulars. At the counter, each seat bears a small plaque designating a faithful customer, like a bar stool hall of fame. 

According to the restaurant’s website, Jim DeYoung, a former owner of more than 60 years, can be found at the shop enjoying his morning coffee with friends almost daily. Ren Bell tells the tale of how the breakfast club came to be.

“We stopped serving breakfast about four years ago, but some of the locals asked me if they could come in and drink coffee,” Ren Bell says. “They come in here every day, except Sunday, at eight o’clock in the morning. They’ll bring donuts, but I provide the coffee.”

Ren Bell says building relationships is key to Northgate’s success.

“If you’re gonna be a mom and pop store, you gotta be here,” he says.

Northgate Soda Shop
918 N. Main St., Greenville

The Pickwick

The Pickwick has stood the test of time under different owners, with occasional closures over the years, but it is still standing strong today. Photo provided

The Pickwick is an example of a restaurant that has refitted itself to every era. Originally its sandwich counter opened in 1933. The store closed in the 1940s when all of its staff members left to fight World War II. In 1947, the pharmacy side of the store was reopened. The Pickwick sandwich counter then closed in the 1960s due to a staff shortage and didn’t reopen until 2007, when Kelly Odom inherited the business from his father.

Today, Odom says The Pickwick runs three operations: a gift shop, the pharmacy and the sandwich counter. It also features a full-service soda fountain, which Odom purchased from an even older Greenville pharmacy, Carpenter Brothers. The soda fountain had been located at its Main Street location in Greenville. Odom sent the entire machine to Chicago’s American Soda Fountain Inc. for a deep cleaning before it returned to service at The Pickwick. Today, customers can try one of the signature fountain drinks, such as the Cherry Smasher or a vanilla cherry Coke. 

The Pickwick
3219 Augusta St., Greenville

Tanner’s Big Orange

John Zeller, the owner of Tanner’s Big Orange, says the secret to the restaurant’s longevity is simple: “Old-fashioned good food.” Photo by Jessica Mullen

“It’s old-fashioned good food,” says John Zeller, the owner of Tanner’s Big Orange. “It’s not rocket science.”

Tanner’s Big Orange opened in Greenville in 1943, making it the oldest continually-serving restaurant in town. According to the restaurant’s website, the restaurant moved from Main Street to South Pleasantburg Drive in 1987, when it was still a two-lane road. At one point, the Tanner family owned restaurants in 28 locations from Texas to North Carolina, according to family sources.

Greenville’s Big Orange is the last Tanner restaurant still in service. John Zeller took over running the restaurant from his father, James Zeller, in 1990. Zeller says that an authentic sense of nostalgia helps Tanner’s Big Orange maintain its identity.

According to the Zeller, the Big Orange is also known as Greenville’s “party punch headquarters.” During the holidays, the restaurant’s orange-pineapple punch, which contains fresh-squeezed fruit juice, is dyed red and green to celebrate the season. It’s a Greenville tradition, he says.

Tanner’s Big Orange
322 S. Pleasantburg Drive, Greenville

The Clock Drive-In

First opened in 1954, The Clock Drive-In was a popular hangout for Wade Hampton High School students in the 1960s, with as many as 2,000 students there on an average Friday night. Photo by Irina Rice

The Clock Drive-In on Wade Hampton Boulevard was opened as the third of three Greenville restaurants owned by Nick and John Hambaris, according to the restaurant’s website. The two Greek brothers gave all three restaurants the same name; the Wade Hampton location was opened in 1954. John Banias, the current owner, recalls the community that originally supported not one Clock restaurant, but many.

“The Greek immigrants would learn the job, learn the language, save their money and then after a few years go off to open their own restaurant. They’d call it The Clock,” Banias says. “Nobody really had the rights to the name, and nobody really complained about it, because they were proud to see someone going off and opening up [a restaurant]. That was the whole American dream — to succeed.”

Banias inherited the business from his father, Paul, who instilled in him the hard work ethic to which Banias credits the restaurant’s longevity. 

The Clock Drive-In
1844 Wade Hampton Blvd., Greenville

Beacon Drive-In

The Beacon serves more than 1 million people every year. Photo provided by the Spartanburg Convention & Visitors Bureau

According to the Beacon Drive-In website, John White opened his restaurant on Thanksgiving Day 1946 on a road that would later be named after him. Today, the Beacon hosts over a million visitors a year, according to its website, which also highlights the restaurant’s famous menu item, the Chili-Cheese A-Plenty, “a chili-cheeseburger buried underneath piles of sweet onion rings and french-fried potatoes.”

The website also claims that the Beacon sells more sweet tea than any other restaurant in the whole world, using 3,000 pounds of sugar per week and making 62,500 gallons a year. They even sell it in retail stores. 

Beacon Drive-in
255 John B. White Sr. Blvd., Spartanburg

Strossner’s Bakery, Cafe & Deli

Strossner’s Bakery, Cafe and Deli has been serving fresh baked goods for more than 70 years. Photo by K. Lee Graham

Strossner’s Bakery, Cafe & Deli, located at the corner of Roper Mountain and Congaree roads, is over 70 years old. Tapley Strossner, the current owner, is the third generation of the family which started the German bakery in 1947. Strossner’s has moved locations several times within Greenville and has added departments such as a to-go counter, catering and florist to meet customer demand.

Strossner says this adaptability has helped his family’s bakery stay in business.

He says the quiche is one of the restaurant’s most famous items, although he says that pumpkin pound cake is the most popular seasonal item for fall.

Strossner’s Bakery, Cafe & Deli
21 Roper Mountain Road, Greenville

The Open Hearth

The Open Hearth, which opened in 1959, is owned by Jimmy and Paula-Starr Melehes. Named for the open charcoal grill on which steaks are cooked, the white-tablecloth, fine-dining atmosphere has been serving Greenville for generations, according to Jimmy Melehes.

“The mainstay is our customers,” he says. “We have a very loyal clientele. I would say probably 65% of our business is regulars. I’ve been seeing a lot of third-generation families coming in. We’ve had people come in who had their rehearsal dinner here 50 years ago.”

The dining room is intentionally designed to be quiet, from the carpeted floors to the sound-absorbent tiles in the ceiling. The service is equally intentional, from greeting customers by name at the door to the fresh-cut flowers on the tables. Ultimately, Jimmy Melehes credits The Open Hearth’s longevity to his family’s dedication.

“I think our biggest success is that we’re family-owned and operated,” he says. “There’s somebody from the family here all the time. Always has been.”

The Open Hearth
2801 Wade Hampton Blvd., Taylors

About Time-Tested restaurants: What it takes to last 50 years in the Upstate

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