It’s been said that the road to the White House runs directly through Greenville’s Tommy’s Country Ham House.
Most of the time, Tommy’s, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, draws in crowds for its homemade biscuits, hand-ground sausage, and banana-nut pancakes.
But during election season, diners might find themselves rubbing elbows with the next occupant of the White House.
So far this year, no fewer than seven GOP presidential candidates have stopped by the restaurant to chat with supporters, talk policy, maybe grab a biscuit before heading to the next campaign stop.
It’s been a gathering place for politicians for decades, since the name was just the Country Ham House and it was located in the old Kash and Karry shopping center on Buncombe Street. Tommy Stevenson bought the restaurant from the original owners in 1985, and in 1997, he moved it to a brand-new building he had designed on Rutherford Street.
In the early days, Sen. Strom Thurmond was an occasional customer, and his special order never varied.
“I always got real tickled,” said Stevenson, chatting one recent morning between the breakfast and lunch rushes. “They would call me before Strom came, two or three days (early) and say, ‘Be sure and have chicken livers.’ That was his favorite food.’”
The unassuming one-story building, with its long wood-grain counter and the cartoon drawings of pigs hanging behind the cash register, isn’t a venue for flashy political operations; it’s a place where candidates can meet regular voters who aren’t found at black-tie fundraisers.
“It’s an established tradition that if you are an aspiring politician seeking votes in Greenville, you’re probably going to end up at the Ham House one time or another,” said David Wilkins, former Speaker of the South Carolina House. “It’s a great meeting place. It’s where a lot of the folks who make things happen in Greenville eat.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the first candidate to visit during the 2016 election cycle. It’s been a regular campaign stop for Santorum over the years.
“It’s a terrific venue to meet South Carolina voters,” Santorum said in a recent statement.
In July, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina arrived at Tommy’s to find supporters had packed out the place and spilled over into the parking lot.
State Rep. Phyllis Henderson, state director for Carly for President, was surprised at the turnout.
“They just kept letting people in, and I know Tommy, because he’s been there forever, and he was looking a little nervous,” Henderson recalled. “And I told the staff, ‘Y’all can’t let anybody else in because the fire marshal is going to show up.’ So there were lots of people standing outside, people standing outside the window, knocking on the window, like, ‘Phyllis, let me in.’ … That’s what I remember about that, we had to turn people away.”
Candidates like Fiorina enjoy the chance to connect with voters in a more intimate setting than a cavernous hotel ballroom, Henderson said.
“This is 100 or 150 people, where they’re sitting right there asking her questions,” Henderson said.
It was the 2000 election that put Tommy’s Country Ham House on the map of odd moments in South Carolina political history, and Stevenson enjoys recounting the story.
It was the day of the South Carolina primary, and then-candidate George W. Bush made a last-minute campaign stop at Tommy’s.
The crowds that day were wall-to-wall, Stevenson recalled. “We probably had 325 sitting and another 300 standing, and probably 7-, 800 outside wanting to get in.”
When Bush prepared to leave, his bus was blocked by a group of protestors, dressed in pink pig suits, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The demonstrators, one of them shouting “Meat is murder,” dumped a truckload of cow manure in front of Bush’s van, according to a Los Angeles Times story about the event.
The protesters were arrested quickly.
“To see them in the back of a police car wearing pink pig suits and handcuffs was really funny,” Stevenson said – and the Bush campaign had to call for another bus before heading to the next stop.
As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, Bush’s comment was, “I’m glad I had bacon for breakfast.”
Wilkins was with Bush that day, and he said Bush still remembers the incident.
“When I see him, he often mentions this to me,” Wilkins said.
Tommy’s is most popular with GOP candidates, and so far this season, Republican candidates are the only ones who’ve stopped, but “we welcome Republican or Democrat,” Stevenson said.
The open layout that offers a casual place to talk to voters was part of Stevenson’s vision for the restaurant when he moved from the original location. He imagined a dining room that invited friendly conversation.
“Most of your restaurants are cut up. They want a section here and a section here, and they’re separated from everything. So I wanted an open restaurant. I wanted it to be like a family,” said Stevenson, who owned a restaurant equipment business before he bought the Country Ham House in 1985.
It’s been 30 years since he bought the place, but “it feels like a hundred,” Stevenson joked.
Back then, Stevenson was 44, with every expectation that he would retire in 20 years or so. Thirty years later, he still works more than 350 days a year, arriving around 3 a.m. to get things going and sticking around until the last customer leaves at 2 p.m.
“I’m 74 and working harder than I’ve ever worked, I reckon,” he said.
He makes the sausage himself, and he still enjoys coming up with new foods to add to the menu, the lunch buffet, or the list of daily specials. The restaurant goes through about 5,000 eggs a week, and bakes at least 2,500 biscuits over the same length of time.
The place seats about 325, and it’s bursting at the seams on the day of a candidate’s visit.
Stevenson thinks his place is popular with politicians because “they want to come where the people are. … They’re looking for exposure. And the way our restaurant is laid out, you can stand in the middle here and talk.”
For Jane and Jim Schempp, who drive from Greer every morning for breakfast, the food and the friendship are the big draw. Meeting a potential United States president is just a dollop of gravy.
One recent morning, the Schempps sat in their usual booth on the left side of the restaurant. As Jane finished up her sweet potato waffle, she said she enjoys the creativity that Stevenson puts into the menu.
“I don’t know where (else) you can get a sweet potato waffle. … It’s really very good; everything’s very good. He tries to please you.”
The Schempps don’t plan their visits around campaign stops at Tommy’s, but they enjoy crossing paths with the candidates when it happens, Jane Schempp said.
“That’s what’s nice about this restaurant. It’s kind of like family. When the politicians come, you feel like you can talk to them because it’s a friendly place. You feel like you can talk to them if you want to talk to them about something. … I don’t know that there’s any other restaurant in Greenville like this one,” she said.
Stevenson gets to know his customers, and he gets his photo taken with the politicians during their campaign stops. And while he enjoys meeting the candidates, he said he’s never changed his mind about a candidate, positively or negatively, after a visit.
Despite the political cred of the restaurant, Stevenson never talks politics with his patrons. Football, the Furman Paladins in particular, is his passion. Football and food.
“I love seeing people enjoy the food. Everything you eat today was made this morning. That’s what I enjoy, seeing people enjoying what I’ve worked hard to do for them, before they ever get up.”
Stops in Columbia
So where do candidates like to stop when they’re in Columbia?
Among the places: Candidates in both parties seem to like Lizards Thicket. And, the Democrats seem to find their way to Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Northeast Richland.