S&S Cafeteria, a venerable institution that has operated as much like a social club as a place to eat in Columbia, will close its doors at Richland Mall at the end of the month after more than 60 years in town.
Its owners, Macon, Ga.-based Smith & Sons Foods Inc., said the downturned economy has left them no choice. They did not rule out a future location in the area.
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Customers, meanwhile, read a sign on the door Thursday of the Southern-food buffet’s lone remaining outlet in Columbia and could barely believe their eyes.
“We don’t want them to close,” said Sue Campbell, a Columbia resident who emerged from the cafeteria after lunch Thursday. “We want them to give it a little more time.”
Campbell, a 40-year employee at the Belk department store — one of the few remaining anchor stores in the struggling Forest Acres shopping center — said she eats at S&S twice a week and feels that the economy will yet come back to support such cornerstone community businesses as S&S.
She is not alone in her sentiment toward the restaurant.
“We eat here three times a week,” Columbia resident Cathy Hiott said of her family. “My husband and I eat here every Sunday after church; we eat here on Tuesdays when they have their senior citizens’ discount — the food is wonderful and this is very convenient.”
J.A. Smith IV, a vice president and co-owner of Smith & Sons, said the decision to close was because of a leasing situation and a lack of customers. “We’re very saddened by the situation,” Smith said by phone. “We love Columbia. It’s a great Southern-food town.”
One of the mall’s new owners, Bill Walkup, said Smith & Sons told him the S&S Cafeteria at the mall has a customer base of 5,500 per week but needed an additional 1,000 customers per week to stay open.
He said all of the mall’s tenants, including the restaurant, saw increased sales in 2010 from the previous year. He said that in the past six years, S&S saw only one year of down sales and that was in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession.
Though there’s a sign on the front door of the restaurant, many customers did not stop to read it Thursday. Typically they peruse the colorful handwritten daily menu posted by the door, then rush on past it to the cafeteria’s highly-touted hot buffet. Braised beef was the special Thursday and ranch chicken casserole is featured today.
Good food may not be the only issue at stake with S&S’ closing, however.
“I hope the mall will be able to stay open,” said June Stevenson, a mall walker who also said she eats regularly at the restaurant. “This closing will have an impact and it’s going to be missed by a lot of people.”
The mall — recently known as Midtown at Forest Acres — has undergone a rocky financial road and several name changes, moving from a full and thriving shopping mall in the heart of one of the richest shopping districts in the Midlands to bankruptcy.
Century Capital Group, headed by two Columbia businessmen, Walkup and Don Taylor, purchased the mall in February 2010 for $4.4 million from a group of Florida investors who had purchased the property out of foreclosure a year earlier and put it on the market for $28.5 million.
Walkup said he and Taylor, who have hired well-known local developer Alan Kahn to help them recruit new businesses to the mall, are sorry to see the cafeteria close but still are committed to revitalizing the center and returning it to its glory days for Midlands shoppers.
“Our current work with new anchor tenants continues uninterrupted as we work toward redevelopment of Richland Mall as a lifestyle shopping center,” they said in a statement.
S&S Cafeteria opened its first location in Columbia on Lady Street in 1949. Ten years later, the cafeteria moved to a Gervais Street location, where it operated until 1998, closing, the company said, because of a nonrenewable lease. S&S opened the Richland Mall location, at Forest Drive and Beltline Boulevard, in 1988.
S&S has about 40 full-time employees, Smith said, and other part-time workers. He said full-time employees have been offered an opportunity to go to work in one of the company’s other locations, and some have decided to take positions in Greenville, Charleston and Augusta. S&S also operates stores in Atlanta, Macon, North Augusta and Knoxville, Tenn.
Long-serving former state Sen. Kay Patterson of Columbia was among those having lunch at S&S Thursday when he heard the restaurant was closing. “Immediately, I went into mourning,” said Patterson, known for his colorful commentary on political issues. “I don’t know what (I’m) going to do.”