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Like many restaurants, Chapel Hill institution fights for survival during crisis

Like many restaurants, Chapel Hill institution fights for survival during crisis

"Struggling, but we're here," says Sutton's Drug Store owner Don Pinney who has worked at Sutton's Drug Store in Chapel Hill for 42 years and now owns it. The coronavirus pandemic is "the hardest thing" Pinney has dealt with regarding the beloved 97-year-old establishment, he said on Aug. 27, 2020.

When he was a young boy in the early 1970s, Pinney often walked from his grandparents’ house to Sutton’s, the pharmacy on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, across from the University of North Carolina campus. It was about a mile walk up a gently rising hill, an arduous journey, but one that came with an enviable reward.

Almost 50 years later, Pinney can still taste the payoff of those pilgrimages. Long after he grew into a man, the boy inside of him has never forgotten what it felt like, back then, to walk into Sutton’s and order a milkshake at the lunch counter. Those walks, and what awaited at the end of them, comprise some of Pinney’s earliest memories.

In one way or another, Sutton’s has been a part of his life since birth. His parents worked there, and met there. He spent part of his childhood there. Sutton’s gave him his first job, when he was 13. He washed dishes, cleaned shelves and emptied the trash. Most of whatever money he earned, he said, sitting in a booth along the wall, “I spent it right here, anyways.”

I’d get a grilled cheese or something,” he said. “I mean, we didn’t have a whole lot growing up, you know. Didn’t come from any money. ... I always wanted to work.”

Most days since, Pinney has gone to work at Sutton’s. He has worked there long enough to become a part of its history; long enough to go from sweeping the floor to becoming the owner. He has worked there for 42 years. Now the job is more difficult than ever, he said, as the coronavirus rocks one of the country’s most idyllic college towns.

Sutton’s has been around for 97 years, a constant presence on Franklin Street since it opened in the spring of 1923. In its earliest years it survived the Great Depression. More recently it survived losing the pharmacy and drugstore side of its business in 2014, when CVS bought it out. It has survived the changes along Franklin Street, where businesses come and go more often than classes of college students cycle through town.

Can Sutton’s survive the pandemic?

Now Pinney wonders if Sutton’s can withstand this, if it can make it to the other side of the pandemic, whenever that other side might arrive and however it might look.

“All I need is my business to survive,” said Pinney, with the kind of easy smile that has helped him win loyal customers over the years. “I want to make it 100 years, at least.”

For decades, Sutton’s Drug Store, as it’s officially known, offered a pharmacy in the back and a lunch counter on one side of a long wall, with circular padded stools bolted to the floor. Locals could pick up their prescriptions and then catch up on the town gossip while they stopped for a bite, squeezing their knees between the stool and the counter.

Over the years, the grill became the main attraction. Greasy-spoon breakfasts. Burgers and hot dogs at lunch. Now Sutton’s is primarily a diner, with the kind of charm befitting its surroundings and place in the Chapel Hill and university community.

UNC sports memorabilia lines the windows and walls. Light blue and white football and basketball jerseys are everywhere, most of them signed by players with notes of appreciation.

Photos near the back, all the same rectangular size, arranged in grids, show customers crowded into booths alongside friends or family or teammates who became both.

There are photos of tables full of Tar Heel basketball and football players. Of Chapel Hill dignitaries. There are photos of anonymous college kids, and everyday people Pinney came to know by their faces and their orders. He looked to his right, at the scenes hanging over the booth where he now sat, and immediately recognized the faces looking back at him.

There was a man he knew as “Mr. Tom” — “a good customer, and now his daughter’s a customer,” Pinney said. There was Holden Thorp, the former chancellor. There was Kevin Foy, the former mayor of Chapel Hill. There was Woody Durham, the longtime radio voice of the Tar Heels. He died in 2018 but in the photo he’s smiling at a table with two little kids.

“Woody and his two grandchildren, who are grown now,” Pinney said. “I miss ol’ Woody.”

In addition to the pictures on the wall, Pinney has another 10,000 in storage. “We kind of rotate them in and out,” he said. “But over time they start fading.”

This is the time of year, normally, when it would have been possible to make new photographs. It’s the time of year when freshmen might walk inside Sutton’s for the first time as college students, the way their parents or grandparents did.

College ghost town

UNC, like N.C. State and East Carolina and other schools in the state, attempted to reopen its campus despite the pandemic. And, like at N.C. State and ECU, the experiment did not last long. Less than two weeks after students began moving into residence halls, UNC identified its fourth on-campus cluster of the virus and moved classes online. Students were encouraged to leave campus.

The departures, Pinney said, have turned Chapel Hill into “a ghost town.” Business at Sutton’s, already down about 80% since March, only made it back to 50% for one week after students returned in August, he said.

But then came the additional spread and, in essence, the closing of the nation’s oldest public university. And so now Sutton’s has become part of a cruel experiment, and a question:

What happens to a college town institution when there’s no college?

“My landlord has been very generous to help me,” Pinney said. “If not, we probably wouldn’t be here now. ... The rents on Franklin Street are expensive — they’re high. But you know, when the students are here, you can probably justify that rent, because of the amount of foot traffic. With students not here, probably not so.

Some Sutton’s customers, Pinney said, have offered to help cover costs. Others have purchased thousands of dollars worth of gift cards they’ll use later. He received some small business loans from the government, but said he hasn’t used them given his lack of confidence in how long the pandemic might last, and whether Sutton’s can survive. If it can’t, he fears having to repay those loans.

As Pinney described the challenges, one of his most loyal customers sat alone at a booth in the back. Joe Buckner likes it there, he said, so he can talk with the cooks, or read the paper in quiet. He is a gregarious man, a longtime Orange and Chatham County judge who retired at the end of July. If Sutton’s didn’t make it through the pandemic, Buckner said, it “would break my heart.”

“I’d be homeless without this place,” said Buckner, 60, who comes by most every day. His go-to order is a sandwich called the Feeding Frenzy, which comes loaded with roast beef, turkey and bacon.

He discovered Sutton’s his freshman year in 1978. He lived in Mangum Residence Hall. He became friends with John Woodard, the former Sutton’s pharmacist and co-owner who for decades was like the unofficial town mayor, the familiar face in the white coat behind the back counter.

Buckner became a district judge in 1994. Depending on his schedule, he’d come to Sutton’s for breakfast or lunch — or sometimes both. He liked that any time he walked in, he encountered a cross section of life in a college town: professors who might be sitting near the mayor; an All-American basketball player sharing the lunch counter with maintenance workers; or somebody down on their luck.

At Sutton’s it was never uncommon, Buckner said, to see someone like Bill Roper, the former dean of the UNC medical school and interim UNC System president, having lunch “beside one of the guys I had on my jail line, the day before.”

“It’s just a very egalitarian place,” said Buckner. “And some of the guys on my jail line aren’t bad people. It’s true. And you’d come and see Walter Dellinger, who’s the solicitor general of the United States, sitting next to one of my folks that’s got some mental health challenges, and having some housing issues.

“And everybody’s the same.”

Nearby, a cook was working over a hot grill, a mask covering his face, but there were only a few diners to serve. Outside, Franklin Street was mostly empty. Few people walked past Sutton’s, and its familiar yet fading orange and yellow awning. For years, Thursday has been a popular day. It’s one of two, along with Tuesday, when Sutton’s offers a special: two hot dogs, fries and drink for about $6, including tax.

Usually, the tables inside would start to fill up before noon. Now Rei Gutierrez, who has worked the front register for most of the past 15 years, stood alone behind the counter, waiting for a customer.

Guiterrez, 50, likes to tell people he has the best job in Chapel Hill, because of who he’s able to meet and talk to while he’s ringing up burgers and BLTs. He has watched college kids turn into parents, and prominent athletes transform from big men on campus into alums who walked through the doors seeking comfort in the familiar, like anybody else.

Even more than the food and T-shirts and memorabilia — like the basketball cards of UNC players stored in a small box by the register — Sutton’s sells a feeling of being home again.

“For as long as I’ve been here, I’ve seen family generations coming in,” Guiterrez said, and that’s always been especially true on football Saturdays. “But that was back when things were normal. I don’t know what to expect this year.”

No sports, no business

Most seasons, Pinney said, Sutton’s would make about $100,000 from UNC’s home football games. Now it appeared unlikely spectators would be allowed inside Kenan Stadium, if there was a season at all. Most Sundays, Sutton’s would be busy, too, with customers who’d stop in before or after church. But those services weren’t happening, either. Most weekdays, there’d be enough of a rush for two shifts of workers. Now there was but one.

Most years, by late August, business would be starting to thrive again. And now, Pinney said, “It’s been like a six-month long summer break.” Outside, the two tables he’d moved to the sidewalk baked empty in the sun on a 90-degree day.

“I’ve just got my fingers crossed that things will work out,” Pinney said. “People will still come to town, visit. ... I just want to see it the way it was.”

He’s already had to cut staff. He’s borrowed from the future to pay for now. He’s been doing “whatever it takes to keep the door open,” he said. Even in the worst case, he figured Sutton’s could find a way for the next two years, and that would put it on the brink of turning 100. Then again, there was no way to know how long any of this might last.

“Now if this stretches on for another year?” Pinney asked, and he knew there wasn’t an answer. Nearby, one of his employees prepared boxed lunches for a fraternity, and Buckner finished his early lunch.

In the before times, the lunch rush would be starting soon. Now everybody here hoped Sutton’s could hold on long enough to see it return.

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