Editor's note: This story originally appeared Jan. 31, 2011
Almost 800 people turned out Sunday for one last meal at Columbia’s S&S cafeteria — where home-style eats from gravy-soaked country steak to a most excellent cherry pie have been served for 64 years.
“This is my last chance to get some crackling cornbread!” said Margaret Smith, 50, the last person in line before S&S closed its doors for good shortly after 2:30 p.m. at Richland Mall. Members of her family — she had her daughter, Nikita, and 3-year-old grandson, Akari, with her — have been coming to S&S for some 30 years.
It wasn’t just the food customers raved about Sunday — it was the personal touches by the dozen-plus waitresses who enjoy a reputation for being as friendly as they are efficient.
“Estelle (Waddell, her longtime waitress) will see us in line and give a little wave. That means she has the table fixed — she’s the best,” said Rosellen “Ro-ro” Faulk, 83, who’s been coming to S&S for “Oh, I’d say about 50 years.” She was having some favorites: country steak, lima beans, German chocolate pie and sweet tea.
Faulk and her daughter, Rosanne Sullivan, 54, were the first people in line Sunday. They arrived at 10:30 a.m., 30 minutes before opening.
The line quickly grew to about 70 people, where it stayed until shortly before 2:30 p.m., when the cafeteria closed its doors. An off-duty Richland County sheriff’s deputy, Warren Gadson, 43, himself an S&S regular, had the sad task of turning latecomers away.
Those who ate lamented the passing of a way of life, an older way but a better way, they said.
“This is the America that was,” said Dale Angstadt, 60, Ben Lippen Bible Department chair, who has been coming to S&S for years and was lingering over his last chicken pan pie.
His wife, Phyllis Angstadt, 56, a professional nanny, agreed. “Waitresses here get to know their customers and get involved in their lives.”
Sunday morning, one of her favorites, Helen Gartman, the head waitress, spotted them and set out the usual: water, extra napkins, pepper vinegar (for Phyllis’ greens) and lemons (to put in Phyllis’ water.)
Gartman, 65, said waitresses will miss customers as much as customers miss them.
“We’ve had a lot of people cry today — I’ve had tears in my eyes too,” she said. Waitresses and customers bonded over the years, sharing stories of life’s victories and setbacks, she said. “No matter what, they stood by us.”
Those bonds gave her job special meaning, said Gartman, who worked at S&S 30 years.
Said Waddell: “I haven’t had so many hugs in my whole life.”
Personal touches were many. Come with a group? Waitresses put tables together. Need help with a tray? No problem — waitresses carry them to the table. Don’t like leftovers? Most food is made from scratch daily, including pie dough and whipped cream, from old family recipes.
Some sacrificed to get there Sunday. Dan Whitehouse, 44, skipped church to be among the first in line. “I’ve been coming here since I was 9 or 10, and now I usually eat here four, five times a week, at least,” he said, munching a longtime favorite — spaghetti.
Problems weren’t really problems at all.
“I come in every time and say I’m going to get something different — and I get country-style steak every time,” said David Grookett, 50, a financial planner who was with his wife, Tamie, a professional photographer, and son, Wister, 12, a sixth-grader.
He was ordering his usual steak; Wister, fried chicken; and Tamie, roast beef and macaroni, which she called “the closest thing to home-cooked macaroni you can get.”
S&S was family, said numerous customers Sunday. They recalled the elderly woman known for giving out dollar bills to little children as well as couples who share meals, each spouse taking turns on who would get to choose the meal that day.
“This is like Grandma’s house is closing,” said Jane Melven, 49, an Oake Pointe Elementary School teacher who’s been coming to S&S for years. She recalled one waitress who would say to children who wouldn’t eat, “I’m not supposed to give my balloons out on a Sunday, but if you eat, I’ll give you one.”
Jill Sinclair, 55, there with husband Irmo banker Tony Sinclair, 55, daughter Katie Beth Rogers, an administrative assistant, 22, and son-in-law Brandon Rogers, 22, an architectural intern, recalled how she often saw people from her home county of Darlington at S&S. “They would be here shopping at the mall and they would come here to eat. This is a tradition. This is a landmark.”
“It’s just been a part of our family for years,” said John Hardee, 63, of Columbia, who downed some favorite roast beef, macaroni, rutabagas and chocolate pie.
Many people ordered take-out.
The desserts he got to go were especially sweet to Bob Sharpe, 70, an Irmo consultant, who snagged his 90-year-old mother’s favorites just before S&S ran out.
“I’ve got two of the last four sweet potato pies,” said Sharpe, lifting a white plastic bag. “This is her favorite thing.”