RAMblings 4.1.09 - Like Carolina Hoops, Sutton's Keeps Ticking

by Lee Pace



            Less than eight hours after returning from Memphis and the Tar Heels’ successful Sweet Sixteen adventure, Tyler Hansbrough was right back at one of his favorite Chapel Hill haunts. Bright and early Monday morning, Hansbrough sauntered into Sutton’s Drug Store, the Franklin Street institution since 1923, and ordered his requisite three-egg omelet with chicken breast.

            Owner and pharmacist John Woodard and his wife, Kim, attend Roy Williams’ radio show each Monday night at Spice Street restaurant and last week, when Hansbrough was there to be a guest on the program, they marveled at how fast the time had flown since Hansbrough and fellow seniors like Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard began frequenting Sutton’s.

            “Kim got the biggest tears in her eyes,” Woodard says. “Right after we won the 2005 national championship, all of a sudden these new faces showed up. We didn’t have a clue who they were. Now, four years later, it tears us up to think that Tyler will be leaving. He’s been such a part of Sutton’s. He and Bobby and so many others. We’re just thrilled that Marcus will be around another year.”

            If you want to take the pulse of Tar Heel Nation during Final Four week, there’s no better place than Sutton’s. It’s the longest running establishment on the 100 block of Franklin Street, and Woodard (UNC ’68) has been an institution there since he bought the store in 1977 from Elliott Brummitt. Professors, policemen, accountants, physicians, attorneys, students and all manner of Chapel Hill life make Sutton’s a regular part of their day—for eggs and grits at daybreak or Sutton’s signature cheeseburgers at lunch—and to discuss the affairs of the day.

            This week, of course, the subject is basketball.

            “Gosh, I’ll never forget the ’82 championship,” Sutton says of the Tar Heels’ win over Georgetown to secure Dean Smith his first of two national titles. “It was the most electric experience I’ve ever had. We locked the doors and watched the game in the store. At the time, Players was the nightclub up above us, and it was the place to be. In a matter of seconds after the final gun, Players emptied out and it was wall-to-wall people out front. It was just unbelievable. In all the years I’ve been here, that was the most exciting. We finally won one.

            “And I tell you what: This town celebrated for months after that it seemed.”

            Woodard is visiting with Terry Hill, a regular at Sutton’s and a TV engineer in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communications, early one morning when that 1982 championship comes up.

            “I watched that game in Carrboro and walked out on the front porch at the end of it, and I could hear the roar on Franklin Street,” Hill says. “I said I give them 30 minutes to go through all the blue paint.”

            Around them are the hundreds of 8x10 color photos of Sutton’s customers over the years—including UNC President Erskine Bowles; former Chancellor Paul Hardin and his extended family; current Chancellor Holden Thorp having lunch with Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy; football and basketball players running back to the 1980s; women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell and her top assistant, Andrew Calder; Roy Williams and assistant Joe Holliday; Tar Heel play-by-play man Woody Durham; even musician Kenny Mann of the popular band liquid pleasure.

            Soda fountain manager Don Pinney notes with amusement some Duke folks on the walls as well and cites the Duke Chronicle for having noted Sutton’s culinary prowess. “Perhaps the best Triangle cheeseburger is found—boo hiss!—in Chapel Hill, at Sutton’s Drug Store on Franklin Street,” notes the Chronicle.

            Willie Mae Houk ran the soda fountain for three decades and was already an institution when Woodard bought the pharmacy in 1977. Over the next few years, he had to adjust as more “big box” retailers and pharmacies began siphoning business from mom-and-pop operators. So Woodard decided to add to the 18 counter stools by adding five booths. The sides of the booths were bare surfaces, so Willie Mae suggested one day in 1983 that Woodard display a dozen photos he had of the staff and some of Sutton’s regular customers. It sounded like a good idea, so Woodard got them mounted and hung them on the pegboard surfaces.

“That very day, people started asking, ‘How can I get my picture up there?’” Woodard says. “You talk about stumbling on something! Those pictures have been a gold mine of advertising and promotion. I don’t care how famous someone gets, they love seeing their picture on the wall. People bring friends from out-of-town to Sutton’s so they can point out their picture on the wall.”

So good is the food business that Woodard has doubled the seating capacity and cut back on floor merchandise space. Today the bulk of Sutton’s revenue comes from prescriptions and food. Lines form out the front door on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the lunch special is two hot dogs and fries for $3.25. Pinney has other specials throughout the week as well. On another day, he’s offering two sliders—your choice of mini-sandwiches of hamburger, chicken or fish—with fries for $3.25.

“It’s our own economic stimulus program to help students,” Pinney says. “People used to not mind a $7 lunch. Now they get a little upset if you go over $5. Tell you what: If Carolina could win this weekend, it would really help the revenue of Chapel Hill. We’ve hurt like everyone has the last six months.”

Woodard and staff are girding up for what should be a big weekend. Even though the Tar Heels aren’t playing until Saturday night, the town will be full as fans come to line up seats at the bars of local watering establishments. Of course, Sutton’s won’t be a part of that—“The only alcohol you can get here would be a Percocet milkshake, and you’ve have to have a prescription for that,” Pinney says—but the store will get plenty of business from alumni who have only Sutton’s to hang onto as tangible reminders of their undergrad days. With the folding of the Ratskellar and the move of Wentworth and Sloan Jewelers to University Mall in recent years, Sutton’s is the old stand-by.

            “Downtown is exciting, it’s something new every day, you’re meeting new people every day,” Woodard says. “We have people come in all the time, former students, they’ll say, ‘Hope you’re making it, tell us you’re not closing.’ They like having something still here that was part of their lives as students. We get referrals every August, freshmen come in whose parents had prescriptions filled here and ate lunch here. They’re excited to bring their kids here. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you’re doing something right.”

Indeed, Sutton’s has done something right for many years.

 “You sit down, you’re family,” Pinney says. “It’s comfortable.”

As Melvin Scott, a senior on the 2005 Tar Heel national title team and an admitted Sutton’s addict once said, “Look around—everyone’s smiling and laughing.”