The scene plays out as it has for decades at Sutton’s Drug Store. Every Friday morning around 7 a.m., several men, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, amble in for breakfast. They take their familiar places at bar stools around the counter. In a cramped grill space behind the counter, a cook hurries to prepare coffee.
Manager Don Pinney, usually wearing a Carolina sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes, greets them warmly. The customers exchange friendly insults and crack jokes about their wives and ways to pick up women. A plate of food appears in front of another man without his order ever leaving his mouth.
John Woodard, the owner and pharmacist, wanders over to welcome the regulars at the bar wearing a clean white lab coat over his shirt and tie. After adding his own laughter to the boisterous conversation, he moves to chat with other customers at nearby booths. He even slides into one booth to inquire about the health of a patron he sees less regularly.
Sutton’s through history
Sutton’s has been a fixture on Franklin Street since 1923. Pictures of past customers line the walls, adding to the history and the inviting ambience of the store.
Carolina basketball and football jerseys hang from the ceiling, reminding everyone what an integral part Sutton’s plays in the UNC-Chapel Hill experience. It is the customers and employees of Sutton’s that has made the store so popular for so long.
In his comforting southern drawl, Woodard welcomes and assists customers all over the store. He’s enjoyed every day of the 35 years he has owned Sutton’s. Elliott Brummitt, the previous owner, had certain conditions that had to be met before he sold the store.
“He wanted to sell it to someone who would continue the tradition of Sutton’s being an independent drugstore. Someone who would come in and basically just do nothing more than take his place and leave everything the same as it was. The only stipulation was that when it came time for me to sell the store, I would do everything I could to do the same thing.”
A 1968 graduate from UNC, Woodard was giddy to have the opportunity to return to Chapel Hill. He respected Sutton’s traditional drugstore set up and was grateful for the help of the experienced employees.
He said, “I was as green as a cucumber. I didn’t know what I was doing when I came. All I knew was I had to try to learn how to order and simply write the checks to pay the bills.”
Basketball and “the next best thing”
In the early 1980s, the public changed buying patterns and business at Sutton’s suffered. Many students brought supplies with them when they returned to school, instead of buying them in town. To increase revenue, Woodard removed a row of slow-moving merchandise and added four booths to the dining area. Most of Woodard’s customers ate in Sutton’s to chat with the cooks that had worked there for over 30 years. Prior to the addition, the store only had about 19 stools crammed around the bar.
Now Sutton’s had another dilemma: The walls around the booths looked stark and unappealing. Willie Mae Houk, one of the longtime cooks, remembered that Woodard had pictures of the UNC-CH basketball team.
Woodard said, “I had eleven pictures of some of the ball players that would come in. I went down to the mall and bought some plastic picture frames and I came up and I hung them on this board right where the booths are now. The very day we had them hanging up there, all of a sudden people started asking, ‘How do we get our picture up there?’”
The Sutton’s Wall of Fame was born. Woodard never again worried about enticing people into the store. Customers wanted to be a part of Sutton’s history, and once they tried the food, especially the famed cheeseburger, most became part of the Sutton’s community. The jerseys hanging from the ceiling further connect Sutton’s to the university. The jerseys aren’t just replicas of Woodard’s favorite Tar Heels either.
Woodard smiled at this memory and said, “In 2005, the year when they won the championship, several of the players like David Noel, Sean May and Raymond Felton, all those guys that used to live in here whenever they were on the team, they came to Don and me and said, ‘Look we just won a national championship. We know, because we’re leaving early, that we’ll never be hanging in the rafters over at the Smith Center with our number and jersey retired. Do you mind if we hang our jerseys at Sutton’s?’ So, I mean that just tickled us to death. They said Sutton’s was the next best thing.”
Besides the gentleman in the lab coat, there is another man vital to Sutton’s: manager Don Pinney.
“I’m a native. My mother and father worked here in the ‘50s and they got married. I was born in ’64. I’ve been on these stools for quite a few years,” said Pinney.
In addition to growing up at Sutton’s, Pinney has worked as manager for 32 years. He attributes the laid-back and enjoyable atmosphere to the clientele.
“I hired everybody to be a different personality because it takes different people to work here. I mean, everybody’s pretty cheerful and fun. I haven’t had anyone call in sick in five years,” said Pinney.
Pinney also mentions Willie Mae Houk as one employee whom all of the customers loved. In addition to starting Sutton’s Wall of Fame, Houk ran the kitchen with a steel fist. When she died, Pinney wanted to honor her service to Sutton’s.
“I was the one to hang up her frying pan. I thought that much of her. She cooked in that same pan for 32 years.”
He gestures to a frying pan mounted on a wood panel on the wall above the grill. A gold plaque celebrates the memory of Willie Mae Houk and her 32 years of service at Sutton’s.
Jim Crisp, one of the Friday morning regulars, has frequented Sutton’s since 1953. After graduating from UNC, Crisp said he couldn’t leave Chapel Hill either. Motioning slowly towards his UNC hat, Crisp proudly explained that, “Win, lose or draw I’m a faithful fan.”
Crisp said he knows Woodard well and jokes that he serves as his “drug dealer,” noting that his prices are pretty good.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but the price on his drugs is exactly the same as all of the other drugstores in town. He brings my drugs to me. I even pulled up right in my car yesterday, and he brought them out.”
When Woodard retires, he plans to sell Sutton’s to the man who has become like a son to him, Don Pinney. Woodard wants Sutton’s to continue to operate as it has for all these years and Pinney plans to continue this tradition. The delicious food may bring the customers in, but there is something more to Sutton’s. Amid the Carolina memorabilia and pictures of customers that adorn the walls, there is a community that never wants Sutton’s to change.
Have a favorite memory of Sutton’s Drug Store? Tweet at us at @reesenews using the hashtag #suttons. We’ll pick the best memories for publication.
This article was reported as a part of the JOMC 256 Features course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.