The sky was that strange white color, foreshadowing a hurricane. My wife, brother, and I had just driven into Greenville from Bessemer, Alabama, where we had been clearing out my mother’s house. My mother died in July, not so unexpectedly since she was 85, but children are never quite ready to see a parent go.
It was nearly 7pm. Though I was tiring of eating out, I listened to my brother who suggested: “Let’s try the S&S. How long has it been since you’ve eaten in a cafeteria?”
I couldn’t tell him, and so we decided to go back to this old friend, a place we knew from decades ago. A place from our past that provided us with a comfort that felt something like home.
Maybe it was the modest prices, maybe the family-friendly and accessible atmosphere, or maybe that the quality and taste never changed, but my family loved a good cafeteria. In the Bessemer/Birmingham area of my youth, the two main cafeterias were Morrison’s, a national chain, and Britling’s, a local group. Each had several locations scattered throughout the city, and we frequented them after doctor’s visits, shopping expeditions, and on those even rarer occasions when my mother would drive us into Birmingham, pick up my dad from work, and then head to the cafeteria before taking us to a Disney movie at the Alabama Theater.
The food wasn’t sophisticated, but as children, what more could we want than hamburger steak with a dill pickle on top, mashed potatoes, green beans, breadsticks, and colored Jell-O cubes? I don’t remember eating much of anything when I was a kid other than those breadsticks, which I opened while my mother pushed my tray forward. And at the end, my brother and I got a lollipop and a balloon, tied to a wooden stick, that would be half-deflated by the time we got home.
In those days, our cafeteria experience wasn’t about the food, but that would change as we saw more clearly the choices available, and figured out that eggplant casserole and trout almandine tasted better than plain hamburger; that the garlic bread bested the breadsticks; that the egg custard or lemon chess pie made multi-colored Jell-O seem silly.
Over time, the number of these cafeterias dwindled, and the ones that didn’t close became buffets. That might have been fine, except the food quality suffered. Meats and vegetables lingered under hot lamps, and “All You Can Eat” became the rule. From standing patiently in the cafeteria line, asking for those items you wanted, and being served healthy and certainly not skimpy portions, we “evolved” into foraging food from hot tables, heaping more and more on our plates, and going back for thirds if our stomachs could justify it.
I don’t know when the last Birmingham cafeteria died, and that I don’t know hurts.
Whenever we traveled on vacation, my dad steered our meals toward cafeterias, because he liked them and because they were inexpensive. (These were days when a good motel on the beach might cost $20 a night.) It was on one of these trips that we first ate at S&S Cafeteria, likely somewhere in south Georgia. I remember the S&S sign out front, as bold and enticing as any Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson’s, or Krispy Kreme marquee. A sign of welcome, of hospitality and familiarity.
So when my wife and I moved to Greenville in the summer of 1987—a town we had barely heard of and knew nothing about—imagine my crazy delight at noticing the S&S legend on Pleasantburg Road. I have a Ph.D. in modern literature and love punk rock. Yet seeing a cafeteria moved me beyond my so-called avant-garde tastes.
Greenville had two S&S locations then, the Pleasantburg restaurant and one in Haywood Mall. After we had children, our trips to S&S became family gatherings, particularly when my parents visited. Our daughters loved the same things I used to: Jell-O, hamburger steak, lollipops for the trip home. I can’t count the number of times we dined at S&S, but then neither can I remember when we stopped eating there. I suppose it was when the girls became teenagers and the “cool” factor determined whatever we did. Of course, downtown Greenville, with its array of gourmet bistros, also lured us away from that place of comfort and home.
I’d pass the S&S sign every day, heading to I-385 and my job in Clinton. Some days I’d notice it and wonder why we didn’t go there any longer. Most days, though, I kept on driving as if it were no longer there, no longer a part of my life.
Short for Smith and Sons, S&S opened in Columbus, Georgia, in 1936. The first Greenville store opened in May 1950, at 212-214 North Main Street, and the Pleasantburg location opened in 1971. General manager Matthew Miller has overseen operations in this location since 2004. Every day Miller ensures the high standards of S&S: “I check each food item twice daily to guarantee its quality, from the pie filling to the deviled eggs.”
Miller’s 60-hour work week seems daunting. “We served 1,485 people on this past Sunday alone.”
As Miller escorts me to a table, he stops to speak to a man dining alone. “You’re here a little early today, aren’t you?” Later, he tells me, “That man’s wife is disabled and so he takes his lunch here with us every day.”
He stresses the family atmosphere not only between the staff and the customers, but also among the staff itself. Miller has spoken at his former chef’s funeral, and several of his current employees have worked at the store for over 30 years.
I spoke with Wanda, who serves drinks in the line (34 years), and Lee (35 years), one of the chefs. Though they were gearing up for the lunch crowd, they gave me time and let me know how much this work means to them. Wanda is raising two great-grandchildren and appreciates what her career at S&S provides for their welfare. She smiles at every customer passing her station and checks several times to make sure I have what I need.
It’s like she’s my mom or something.
S&S also provides three lunches a week for the East Link Academy Charter School, and as I spoke to Miller, he kept checking with the principal to make sure their lunches had been delivered correctly and on time. He didn’t need to apologize for interrupting our talk. This was a child’s lunch he was concerned with, a child who needed his hamburger steak.
On the night my wife, brother, and I went through the line at S&S, we each chose the fried flounder, and our various sides included baked sweet potato balls, squash casserole, stuffed potatoes with cheese, okra and tomatoes, turnip greens, crackling corn bread, broccoli salad, and egg custard pie. Our bill was under 30 dollars.
My brother suggested dining at S&S to help comfort us through our grief—to remind us of those cafeteria lunches and suppers we spent together with our parents so long ago. It worked, too. On that rainy night, I had more than a meal; I had my past back, if only for an hour.
As we walked outside afterward, my wife took a picture of the glowing S&S sign against that ominous sky. “I’m sending this to the girls,” she said, “so they’ll remember.” And I know they will.