Grilled Cheese and Memories
Downtown’s Boone Drug lunch counter has the distinction of being the longest continually running eatery in Watauga County, with Dan’l Boone Inn and Hill Top Drive Inn running a distant second and third, respectively.
That is just one of the reasons that folks with ties to downtown Boone took the news that the fountain will close at the end of the year with a certain amount of sadness and nostalgia.
Last week, the board of directors of FARM (Feed All Regardless of Means) Café announced that it had struck a deal with Boone Drug Inc. to open a “pay what you can” restaurant in the former location of Boone Drug’s lunch counter. The goal is that all customers can eat there, regardless of financial means.
A lease between the two organizations will be signed on Jan. 1, 2012, and FARM Café is planning to open in April 2012 on the east side of the 100-year-old building.
The lunch counter at Boone Drug first began to serve food in 1919 and has been feeding generations of Wataugans for more than 90 years.
“My mom worked at the lunch counter in the early ’70s,” Susan Winkler said. “I remember walking to Boone Drug after school from Appalachian Elementary. I would have a hamburger and Coke with crushed ice and wait for mom to get off work. I would listen to the customers at the lunch counter, no one in particular, analyzing the hem length of the college girls’ dresses and the hair length of their male companions.”
Added Bill Cooper, “When I got money to go to the afternoon movie at Appalachian Theater, I would spend it at the soda fountain at Boone Drug. We would drop in to see if any new items were on the shelf where they kept the trick chewing gum, itching powder and whoopee cushions. I was drawn like a magnet to the fountain Cokes with the famous two squirts of cherry syrup. As far as I know, it was the only place in the world that had the recipe.”
Added former downtown Boone merchant Randy Malfalfa, “I developed many cherished relationships with people young and old while I ate my ‘hash brown mess’ that cost between $1.50 and $2.99 depending on who was running the register.”
Other signature items on the fountain’s menu were its homemade milk shakes, grilled cheese sandwiches and grilled hot dogs split down the middle and served on a hamburger bun.
“I always got a milk shake and a grilled cheese sandwich there and without fail, either art advice or medicinal advice from Joe Miller,” Malfalfa said.
Miller, of Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff, fame, was one of the fountain’s longtime regulars and started his art supply business in the upstairs of Boone Drug.
“When anyone asks what (astrological) sign I was born under, I say ‘Boone Drug,’” said Miller in a 2009 story about Boone Drug’s 90th anniversary.
Miller’s connection to Boone Drug runs from the day of his birth, when he was born in the backseat of a vehicle in front of the pharmacy. For many years, he was a part owner of Boone Drug but left to pursue his art supply business in 1995.
A number of other prominent Boone people have held court in Boone Drug’s lunch counter over the years, including former Watauga Democrat owners Armfield and Rachel Rivers Coffey, former Boone mayor Wade Wilmoth and Farmer’s Hardware owners Hazel and Cecil Greene.
“Boone Drug at breakfast was the place to be if you wanted to be in the know,” former Boone Area Chamber of Commerce director Judi Scharns said. “Many deals were struck over breakfast, and the cooperative promotion of downtown was done there by the few who were there until a more formal Downtown Boone Merchants Association was formed.
“I remember going in there the day after the Challenger space shuttle blew up, and all the discussion around the counter was about it and that they never should have sent the thing up when it was so cold. Those guys knew what took NASA many months to determine, even though they may not have said it was the O-ring, but they knew it was the freezing temperatures that did it.”
While business deals were struck inside the building, the outside of Boone Drug’s lunch counter has been a popular spot for street artists, nonprofit information booths and musicians.
“I remember seeing Old Crow Medicine Show out front every single day for an entire summer, then hearing they had been discovered by Doc Watson,” Burt Aycock said.
Boone Drug Downtown is located at 617 W. King St. in Boone. For more information on FARM Café, visit http://www.farmcafe.org.