It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon on Franklin Street. UNC had an away game this week, and the often-bustling sidewalks are on the pleasant side of tranquil. But Clay Pinney is still tending the counter at Sutton’s, where regular customers beyond the student population ensure that this Chapel Hill staple is still busy, even at 4 in the afternoon.
Who is Clay Pinney? You could call him a manager, but that would be an oversimplification. Pinney represents something increasingly rare in today’s restaurant industry – the continuation of a legacy.
“Yes, that’s right,” says Clay as he flings chocolate scoops into a blender cup with understated finesse. “I’ve worked here since I was 13, and I’ve been here ever since.”
In fact, Sutton’s is practically in his DNA. Pinney’s father, also a longtime Sutton’s employee, bought the restaurant-portion of the store from pharmacist, John Woodard, who ran the pharmacy from 1977 until 2014. In some ways, Clay’s very existence is because of Sutton’s.
“It’s kind of funny. My grandfather worked the lunch counter here, and he met my grandmother when she worked the old makeup counter…the rest is history.”
History indeed. In the 94 years since it opened, Sutton’s has become one the most recognized businesses on Franklin Street. But the store was not always a mealtime staple. In fact, when it started, the lunch operation was merely a counter and eight stools – a tiny part of one of the most important businesses in early Chapel Hill.
Established in 1923, a time when there were very few other similar businesses in town, the store was a hub for Chapel Hill residents to buy basic necessities and even luxury goods. At its core, Sutton’s was a pharmacy – a single-person operation which supplied much of the town with its medications.
When the store initially opened, most medicines were not mass-marketed, so professionals had to mix medicines in-house. This could take anywhere from a few minutes to a full hour. As a result, the manager opened a general store to keep customers occupied while they waited for their medicine.
Over the years, its “counter” became famous as a luncheonette, drawing crowds that far exceeded the restaurant’s 8 person capacity. As new businesses opened on Franklin Street to supply Chapel Hill with basic grocery needs, the general store became less prominent, and the restaurant area was expanded. Shelving was dismantled and gave way to the familiar wooden ketchup & mustard colored booths that are still in place today.
The original menu, although considerably smaller, was similar to the current one – hamburgers, sodas, milkshakes and malts being staples of Sutton’s from the beginning.
Today, the restaurant occupies over half the store. Although you won’t find a pharmacist compounding medicines in the back anymore, you can still find Clay Pinney pleasantly mixing up cherry-vanilla Coke, taking orders on a Guest-Check pad, and chatting up regulars. He’s even happy to put on a pot of coffee for you at 4 in the afternoon – he’s just “sorry you’ll have to wait that long.”
In addition to burgers, sodas and vintage candy, lesser-known treasures on the menu include the Chicken and Waffle bites, speciality hot-dogs, and the enormous Triple-Decker deli sandwiches such as “The Yankee” (Pastrami + Corned Beef on Rye… Glory Glory Hallelujah).
A lot has changed since 1923. Chapel Hill businesses have come and gone, but Sutton’s remains a favorite for students, families, and yes, basketball players. Tradition for the sake of tradition may be pointless, but tradition for the sake of deliciousness? Well, that’s Sutton’s.
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