‘photos courtesy of Mary Clement Dowell and private collections, unless otherwise noted
Many things in life are either classified as comforting or satisfying. A good meal, a family member who loves you regardless of circumstance, a favorite place, a retreat or hideaway for you… all these are personal, and yet they can mean as much or more to others. The legend of the Snappy Lunch is indeed just that: a personal, satisfying place to many people.
Snappy Lunch at age 75 is unassuming, ageless and intriguing all at the same time. Tucked away on Main Street in downtown Mt. Airy, or “Mayberry” as everyone says, you could easily drive or walk right by it unless you knew where you were going. Yet go by there during the lunch rush on any given day, witness the lines of people who wait to get in and you will know that something special is there. That something special is Charles Dowell, the longtime proprietor and host with a heart behind the Snappy Lunch. Now 80 years old, he is just as happy to see his customers as they are him. For decades he was the first person anyone encountered upon entering the restaurant. Never without his trademark restaurant hat, he manned the front cooking station with the window above it, the epicenter of the operation, that churned out the spectacular sandwiches that we all talk about and remember fondly. All this in the days before Paula Deen, Bobby Flay or even the Food Network. For the first 18 years of my life, I along with many others took the culinary wonders of Snappy Lunch for granted. I enjoyed the burgers, hot dogs, bologna sandwiches, pork chop sandwiches and breakfasts often, never fully realizing the stark reality of it all: There was, is, and will always be only one Snappy Lunch! No fast food operation or culinary hot spot will ever bottle the magic of this place because it is truly unique. Add in value, history, family drama, and longevity, and you have what is unquestionably the longest-lasting eating establishment in Mt. Airy or Surry County.
|Snappy Lunch is located at 125 N. Main St. in downtown Mt. Airy.Breakfast and lunch are served daily from 5:45 a.m. until closing. Formore information, call 336.786′.4931, or visit www.thesnappylunch.com.|
How many restaurants can you name that are in business after 75 years? I can count them on my hand.
In the ’60s and ’70s, when I grew up there, Mt. Airy had very few restaurants, and eating out was nothing like it is today. It was more of a special time rather than a convenience, when value meant more than selection opportunities and families supported the locals because there were no chains to woo you in. We were offered the great Ray’s Starlite Restaurant, the Blue View, the Kingburger, Dairy Center and the Snappy Lunch. McDonald’s, Hardee’s, KFC and the other chains would roll in during the ’70s, but if you wanted more, and certainly if service and more upscale dining were part of your requirements, you drove to a larger city. But here in the Granite City, culinary offerings were limited and simple. The Snappy Lunch started out in 1923 as a partnership between George Roberson and Deuce Hodge. Soon after it opened, Mr. Hodge sold his interest to Ben Edwards, who later sold his to Raymond Hemrick. Twenty years later, a young, quiet and witty Charles Dowell began what was to be a life-long career there. Charles was one of the sons of the well-known businessman AL Dowell Sr., who owned a thriving local grocery business, an assortment of rental properties and farms that he would purchase and resell. Mr. Dowell married a young Nannie Lessie Deatherage, and they soon began producing one of the largest, if not the largest, families in Surry County history, with 15 children. Byron, Leo, AL Jr. Edith, Roscoe, Harry, Opal, Thelma, Charles, Jack, twins Nancy and Betty, Patricia, Jimmy, and Carolyn were all born and raised there, and the family home on Council Street is still home to Thelma, with brother Jack living in the house next door. Mr. Dowell was known as quite a shrewd businessman, but could be a rather stern father figure with one rule:
“Do as I say.” Several of the older children went out on their own earlier in life than the others — Charles started out with an 8 th -grade education. It is said that Charles left after a squabble about the family garden. He worked in several restaurants and lived with assorted people to get by. Mr. Dowell observed his son about town, and tried to coerce him into returning home, but Charles would have none of it. He had had enough. I asked my father what he remembered most about his brother Charles as a young man, and he noted his big heart. My dad mowed yards for his spending money, and he would make 50 cents for his work. He would then go to where Charles worked to eat, and give the money to Charles, who in turn, would feed him a hamburger, hot dog and RC cola, and give him back $1.00. Quite a return for the money, and also a chance to see his brother. When Charles came on board at Snappy Lunch, he did all the odd jobs, but he also learned the ins and outs of that business, and also the workings of the bulding itself. He made the huge salary of $10 a week. Oddly enough, Mr. Dowell was having lunch at Snappy Lunch in 1951, and heard through the grapevine that the share owned by George Roberson was for sale. That share was purchased for $7,000 with a loan from father to son, which was to be repaid. Charles worked long, hard hours to get the loan paid back, and did so within the timeframe of a year, give or take… quite a remarkable feat for that time. In 1960, Charles pruchased Raymond Hemrick’s share of ownership to become sole proprietor, which remains in effect to this day. A lot of the succuss of Snappy Lunch is attributed to Charles’ own ideas of recipes and seasonings. Charles also married his first wife, Betty Williamson, in 1949, and had a son, Mike, in 1951. They were quite young when they married, and during the marriage, she too worked at the restaurant. The Snappy Lunch was also enjoying success, in part to another local guy: Andy Griffith who was starring on television in a show based loosely on the little town of Mt. Airy, named Mayberry. In one episode entitled “Andy The Matchmaker,” Andy suggests to Barney that they go to the Snappy Lunch to get a bite to eat. Due to this fact, the Snappy Lunch is credited as the only existing Mt. Airy business mentioned on the show. Andy also recorded a single titled “Silhouettes” around that time, which mentions the restaurant again. Healso recalled eating hot dogs and drinking sodas there in subsequentinterviews during his career. The curiosity of the public was piqued. Atthis time, Charles invented what was to become his trademark: thewonderfully messy, indescribably delicious pork chop sandwich. Oftenmimicked but never duplicated, this sandwich is a culinary marvel, andlast year was listed Esquire magazine as one of the bestsandwiches in the country. Ordered “all the way” is the best — toppedwith mustard, chili, onions, slaw and tomato. It is a double handful ofsheer pork bliss! Times were good for the restaurant, but taxing forthe marriage, and it began to unravel. Betty and Charles seperated andlater divorced, and Charles lived in the upstairs of the restaurantduring part of the seperation. Mike and his wife Judy havethree children, and he enjoys a good relationship with both hisparents. Betty never remarried, and still lives in the city. Ahard-working, very attractive woman named Mary Clement worked forQuality Mills in the early ’80s and became a regular customer at therestaurant. She was originally introduced to Charles’ son as apotential date, but she had more of a connection to Charles. They begandating and were married in November 1985. Charles had a surgicalprocedure when he was 60, and was told that he would not father anymore children. As luck would have it, six months after that,Mary, still in her thirties, thought she had the flu and went to thedoctor. Turned out not to be the flu, and not feeling quite right, shetook an EPT test and discovered she was pregnant, causing Charles, asshe says, “to go into
shockfor six months.” Their daughter Jamie was born in 1988. Mary has becomean integral part of the operations, and for years now held down themanagement end of the business. In 1992, another celebritymade an impact on the Snappy Lunch. ABC contacted the local chamber ofcommerce, who called the Dowells to say that “someone big” was comingto town the next day, and wanted to come to the restaurant. Theyassumed it was Barbara Walters, and the news spread quickly in thesmall town. Locals started camping out in the restaurant at 6 a.m., andthe “someone big” finally arrived hours late, armed with bodyguards. Itwas Oprah Winfrey.
|Photosof the Dowell family grace the walls of the restuarant, telling theirhistory with the establishment. At right, owner Charles Dowell duringthree phases of his life at the Snappy Lunch. Note the trademark whitepaper hat, which he was never seen without during his years at thegrill.|
‘ Oprah had met someone at the airport uponher arrival who said her son looked like Opie (Ron Howard’s characteron “The Andy Griffith Show”), and so she brought him along as well tothe restaurant. As she did her dialogue, she cut a sandwich in half toshare with the young “Opie,” and proceeded to hand it to him on a glassplate she picked up from the table. The plate turned out to be anAnchor Hocking ashtray! The young Oprah was extremely nice, and manyphotos were taken with her and the staff, which are displayed all overthe store now. Oprah re-introduced the entire nation to the SnappyLunch, but it was really never known if she ate the food or not, as shetook hers to go.
The little town was a curiosity to many, as people wondered if therereally was such a place like the one portrayed on the show. For such asmall town, it was really something to lay clainm to a man as famous asAndy Griffith, and the town became his biggest fan base. And businessesbegan to tap into the immediate recognition of his name and the show.Downtown Mt. Airy began a resurgance that continues to this day.Certainly Griffith had done extremely well as Andy Taylor, and hecontinued to move to other roles in movies and television, but italways came back to Sheriff Andy. The association between him and thetown was ongoing, and the Andy Griffith Playhouse was formed and becamea local success. He also began to appear infrequently at important citymilestone events. Another local did extremely well in anotherform of entertainment. Donna Fargo, AKA Yvonne Vaughn, grew up thereand moved to California after college, and forged ahead with asucessful career in country music. She became the first female artistin the history of country music to have back-to-back million sellingsingles, “The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA” and “Funny Face.” She wasthe “it” girl of the ’70s, and even got her own TV show produced by theOsmonds. At the peak of her success, she was diagnosed with MS andstopped touring. Today, in remission for many years, she has turned towriting inspirational books and cards, and is enjoying a secondsuccessful career. This past July, she released “We Can Do Better InAmerica.” a hard-driving song with a statement about politics, the gascrisis and the war that has gotten her airplay and attention in themusic industry for the first time in nearly 30 years. She never turnedher back on her roots, and she comes back to Mt. Airy sometimes forlocal festivals and events. Her photos, too, hang on the walls of theSnappy Lunch. The biggest event of the year is the annual“Autumn Leaves Festival,” held in October during the prime viewingseason of the fall leaves. Bringing in upwards of 200,000visitors over the three-day period, Snappy Lunch can have a line of upto 12 blocks. Many are returning customers, their children andgrandchildren, the newly curious and future regulars.
Ofcourse during all times of prosperity, there is an underlying fear thatsomething, somewhere will go horribly wrong, and things will cease tobe as they were. Snappy Lunch had always operated in the same location,and since 1960 had the same owner in place. Charles owned therestaurant and paid rent on the building, and it had been an amicablearrangement between the parties. One day, the owner of the buildingplaced an ominous notice outside: “For Sale.” Nobody could believe it.Everyone assumed it was the restaurant and not the building that wasfor sale. The tax value of the building itself was $36,172. Thebuilding was old, had only been associated and identified with therestaurant, and now was to have an unbelievable asking price: $159,000. Panic immediately set in. This place was the largest touristattraction for the whole city, according to the chamber. Nobody wantedit sold to anyone but Charles, and besides, where did that price comefrom? Charles offered $60,000 to the owner, George Snow, and he turnedit down. Snow had hoped to capitalize on the continuing lure andattraction of Snappy Lunch’s claim to fame, and the Mayberry links. Butfate has a strange way of working, and when the deal to sell did godown, it went quite a bit differently than envisioned, andsubstantially cheaper.
Snappy Lunch hasbeen featured in Esquire magazine, Southern Living magazine, andnumerous columns and “best of” lists across the country. The FoodNetwork has featured Snappy Lunch on “Secret Life of Coffee Shops”.
Books featuring either the Snappy Lunch or recipes thereof include:
•Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook by Ken Beck and Jim Clark
•Hidden Carolinas — The Adventurers Guide by Stacy Ritz
•Mayberry Medley by Surry Arts Council
•Backroad Buffets and Country Cafes by Dan O’Briant
•The Best of Mayberry by Betty Conley Lyerly •Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern
•Mayberry Mama’s Food for the Soul and Body by Jewel M. Kutzer
•Cooking for Justice by NC Assoc. of Assistants and Deputy Clerks
•Film Junkie’s Guide to NC by Connie Nelson and Floyd Harris
•Southern Belly, The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South (James Beard Award Nominee) by John T. Edge
‘ Downtown Mt. Airy, Inc., a localnon-profit, bought the building from Snow for $60,000 and a large taxcredit. “He ended up selling it for what I offered,” said my uncle,“but not to me. I was not ready to retire, and certainly did not wantto move the business somewhere else.” But the underlying problem wasstill there: Charles still didn’t own the building. ‘In steppedHarris Greene, owner of Greene Finance and himself a neighbor to SnappyLunch. He then bought the building for the same price, with the directintent to sell it back to Charles. Greene had no interest in therestaurant business itself, and wanted the building to be owned by themost deserving person of all, Charles Dowell. Charles now owns the building he has worked in for most of his life, even though it passedthrough a couple of hands on the way there. The dream had finally beenrealized, and Greene said that Charles will continue “where is, as is”after the sale closed. In 2003, the restaurant shut down forthe longest period in its history, five weeks for a remodel. Thegrandfather clause had expired, and it was time to gut the kitchen,paint, clean, expand and move forward. Much of the originallook has remained intact, and the restaurant now has additional seatingin a second dining area. There are now three full-time employees inaddition to Mary, and five part-timers. Thelma and Jack Dowell, sister andbrother to Charles, and Treva Dowell, Leo’s wife, all work there in theback of the house. Lots of family members eat there often, stillkeeping in touch and enjoying the foods we all grew up on. The menuprices have remained consistantly low over the years, and to this day,food quality and actual portion amounts are unsurpassed. Biscuits arehomemade, gravy is real and the pork “chop” is actually bonelesstenderloin passed through a tenderizing machine to make it easier tochew and eat. It is really a two-fisted sandwich that needs to beserved with plenty of napkins.
Another menu treat not seenoften is the ground steak sandwich. It is ground beef seasoned withsalt, pepper and flour that is then grilled. You just need to try oneof these, and then you will be hooked. I must warn you though:On busy days, there could easily be 200 to-go orders coming throughcalls and faxes, busloads of tourists stopping in while taking a tourof Mayberry and a couple hundred pork chop sandwiches. Burgers, hotdogs, BLTs, grilled cheese, boiled ham and fried bologna are otherlunch treats, and country ham and eggs, sausage, bacon and porktenderloin hold their own at breakfast.
|America’sbest: The pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch was named one of thenation’s best sandwiches by Esquire magazine last year. (photos byJesse Kiser)|
The Dowellfamily has carried on as well. Leo, Byron, Roscoe, Edith, Patricia andBetty have all passed away. The youngest sibling is now over 65, andthe oldest is in his eighties. Several went into the food business aswell, either as suppliers or grocers, and Dowell Brothers, DiscountFoods and Jim Dowell Produce all came from this core of enterprise. Charles’legacy and the legend of the Snappy Lunch has been secured. He stillgoes in when he feels like it, and speaks with guests, poses forpictures and grants interviews. Mary will continue the operations untilshe sees fit or the need to do otherwise. It has been a great run forCharles, the family and, to a large extent, the city, because thebiggest tourist attraction of all is still reeling them in. If youhaven’t been, you are in for a treat. If you have, the comfort factoris still there, and seeing an old friend is always good. A littleolder, a little wiser, and always with a warm smile for everyone,Charles Dowell is living proof that with faith, hope, love anddetermination, all things are achievable. Never judgemental or criticalof others, he has always been a gentleman. To comment on this story, e-mail Jim Dowell Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.