- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) - After 51 years of growth toward Interstate 85, Anderson’s high-traffic commercial area is a well-worn path along Clemson Boulevard.

Those who are drawn in the opposite direction find eateries more reminiscent of another era.

Like Roy’s Diner.

At 1527 S. Main St., it is a frequent destination for Margaret Gibbs, a nurse who loves fresh vegetables, Southern cooking and the feel of a 1950s diner.

She likes to dine “where the food is good and the people who serve it are pleasant to know,” which largely explains why she and her husband have been regulars at the diner for 20 years.

“You can tell by the taste they use fresh vegetables and not canned stuff,” she said.

As other retailers have followed the traffic to the north side of town in the last four decades, Roy Ethridge Jr. has quietly carved his niche on the south side - in part because of the fresh veggies, but more so for Southern staples such as turkey and dressing, meat loaf, salmon patties, fried pork chops and homemade cobbler.

Ethridge isn’t likely to change direction anytime soon. Many of his customers - he always refers to them as supporters - have been with him since 1978.

Among those is Larry Green, who for 38 years has been joking about Ethridge’s cooking expertise. Green has been coming back each week for “good Southern home cooking,” and jokes in Ethridge’s earshot that the quality is enhanced “because Roy isn’t doing the cooking.”

Ethridge, 60, had experience as short-order cook but admits he lacked experience at Southern cooking when he took over the diner - as a lease with an option to purchase - in late 1978. He relied heavily on the expertise of others in the kitchen.

That remains true today. Three team members have been at the diner for more than 20 years, and several others for more than 10 years.

“I’ve been blessed to have had a great staff when I started, and I still do,” Ethridge said. “I’m just blessed all the way around.”

The success, Ethridge believes, has much to do with what hasn’t changed at the diner. The notable exception is an expansion in the early 1980s, when the glass storefront has moved 10 feet forward, enabling Ethridge to add 14 booths, which almost doubled the seating. The curb-service window, which hadn’t been used since Willard and Sybil Cage operated Mary’s Diner in the early 1970s, was transformed into the main entrance at that time.

Also unchanged is the canopy that once covered cars in the drive-in, curb-service era. It is flanked by a sign of modern times, an electronic message board that informs South Main travelers of the daily menu.

Ethridge takes pride in the fact that the atmosphere, food and clientele have remained intact.

On a regular basis he sees a 94-year-old customer who taught him at what was then called Anderson College more than 40 years ago, and a handful of his former teachers and fellow students at T.L. Hanna High School.

“I love it,” Ethridge said about his station behind the counter for more than 1,000 weeks. “I think you’ve got to be a people person to enjoy this kind of work.

“It (the restaurant business) gets in your blood. I still don’t what I’m going to do when I grow up, but I love getting to see so many people on a regular basis over the years.”

From his familiar post on the left side of a long counter, Ethridge is privy to the special moments in the lives of his customers, and is also aware of their struggles.

“You get close to a lot of people,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve lost a lot of good staff and good supporters.”

Ethridge, whose father is known as a local historian, marvels at how he swerved into a career in the food-service business.

A Hanna High friend, Alan Owenby, landed a job at Carlos Restaurant on North Murray, and he helped Ethridge get a job there in 1971.

Ethridge became manager there, working at the small restaurant during his high school and college days. In 1978, a customer and friend, Bob Edison, informed Ethridge that the Cages had decided to sell Mary’s Drive-In.

The experience at Carlos had prepared him for a restaurant of his own, but at 23 he lacked the money, and he knew little about the business at Mary’s.

“I worked there for three weeks, to research the business,” recalled Ethridge, who is now a father and husband.

“And I borrowed every penny I could,” he remembers. “A local banker stuck his neck out to make it happen for me.

“I didn’t know it would be a lifelong journey. It’s been fun.”

___

Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, https://www.andersonsc.com

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