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Saturday September 25th

'It’s all about survival': Long-time Chapel Hill restaurants reflect on past, future

On-Duty Manager, Victor Yax, poses in front of Carolina Coffee Shop.
Buy Photos On-Duty Manager, Victor Yax, poses in front of Carolina Coffee Shop.

In 1982, one photo of a group of morning regulars was hung on the wall at Sutton’s Drug Store. Today, the walls are lined with hundreds of them — pictures of students squeezed into yellow booths, visitors from out-of-town and locals at the counter with a milkshake in hand.  

There are over 10,000 photographs in storage, patiently waiting for their feature on Sutton’s wall. After six months of an unprecedented pandemic, though, they may never get their chance.

Restaurants that were filled with life in March are barren today, void of decorations apart from stark white “For Lease” signs. Windows that once displayed booths and tables filled with happy customers now reveal empty dining rooms without furniture or lights. In some cases, they’re completely boarded up. 

Some restaurants, such as Sutton’s Drug Store, Carolina Coffee Shop and Linda's Bar and Grill, have been open for decades, or even a century. 

They're just a few Franklin Street staples still struggling to hold on, unsure how much longer they’ll be able to survive. Their history and cultural importance to the Chapel Hill, however, keep them fighting. 

Sutton’s Drug Store

Sutton’s Drug Store has stood for 97 years. The interior remains unchanged, transporting nostalgic Chapel Hill locals to simpler times. Its owner, Don Pinney, says it’s the only place of its kind.

“Sutton’s is a different beast altogether,” he said. “You could be sitting beside a homeless person and Dean Roper. People learn to blend together at Sutton’s. We want everybody to be a part of the family.”

Pinney was practically raised at the old counter with a milkshake in hand. He remembers visiting his parents at work, eating breakfast before school on the old leather stools.

“My mother and father worked here in the ‘50s and ‘60s, got married, and I came along in ‘64,” he said. “I knew the stools. This is where we came every day and had breakfast.” 

Sutton’s gave Pinney his first job, and he never left. He began at 13 years old, washing dishes, cleaning and doing odd jobs until he earned a spot behind the grill. He was a cook for 20 years before moving to management, and eventually became the owner. 

Sutton’s is the place that made him, and he won’t let it die.

“I just don’t want to see Sutton’s go anywhere, especially on my watch,” Pinney said. “I’ve got waitresses that have been with me over 24 years, I’ve got cooks that have been with me over 24 years. We’re a big family, and we take care of each other.”

Linda’s Bar and Grill

Christopher Carini, owner and operator of Linda’s since 2011, has lived in Chapel Hill for almost 14 years. Every day, he drives his electric bike up and down Franklin Street, observing and admiring the hustle and bustle of the town. Only, recently, things aren’t so bustling, and his bike rides aren’t so uplifting.

“It’s my town, and I love it,” Carini said. “I see how depressing, and sad and beat up my friends and comrades in arms are who work in the restaurant field.”

Carini understands the importance of Linda’s to Chapel Hill and UNC students. Open on Franklin Street since 1988, Linda’s Bar and Grill has served its bacon and cheese fries to residents, students and alumni for 30 years. It’s a place of nostalgia for people, a reminder of home and the golden years. 

“Linda’s isn’t just a place where you sling beer — it’s a healing place,” Carini said. “This is a place where people come to get away from the rest of Chapel Hill. It’s a Switzerland in the middle of a whole bunch of malarkey.” 

In late August, after a spike of COVID-19 cases on UNC's campus, Carini decided to put his employees' health first and temporarily close Linda's.

He said all he wants to do is reopen his healing place soon. He said he can’t wait to see smiling faces leaving his bar again, and will do whatever it takes to survive until that can happen. 

“At the end of the time of all of this nonsense, the only thing that makes sense is you have to survive,” Carini said. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make now, because spending your rent to keep the location in place is expensive, but it’s less expensive than trying to open up a new space.”

Carolina Coffee Shop

Carolina Coffee Shop, another historic staple of Chapel Hill, is the oldest continually running restaurant in North Carolina. It opened its doors in 1922, before the Carolina Inn, Morehead Planetarium or the Chapel Hill Public Library existed. 

The door opens to rows of old wooden booths, with framed antique photos of historic Chapel Hill adorning the walls.

Carolina Coffee Shop has fed generations of students. Parents and grandparents return to Chapel Hill to a familiar storefront, which has claimed the same spot on Franklin Street for almost a century. 

Miranda DiPaolo, a server at Carolina Coffee Shop, said it’s a place of comfort and familiarity that draws people in because of its unique spirit. 

“We’ve seen everything be built up around it, and it’s one of the only things that’s remained the same throughout decades,” she said. “People love to come when they’re visiting, they love to bring their parents here. Ultimately, it’s just an amazing environment, and I think people really love it for the spirit and the charm.”

Kyle Shea, the general manager, said he is confident that when the pandemic subsides, the restaurant will be around for another 100 years. Survival through tough times is the first priority, especially at a place with so much history.

“It’s all about survival, trying to keep people employed, so they still have an income, making just enough money at the restaurant to take care of your staff,” Shea said. “We’ll worry about profits in 2021.”

@Emmaa_Kenfield

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com 

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