CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In April, Sutton’s Drug Store will celebrate a century of being open in Chapel Hill. Over the years, Sutton’s has changed here and there, but the business’ commitment of serving its customers has remained the priority.
“I’ve seen the store go from just a small little lunch counter to a full-fledged restaurant,” said Don Pinney, the owner of Sutton’s Drug Store. “Sutton’s is kind of the center of the universe in Chapel Hill. It's been the melting pot in the community where everybody got together.”
Most people probably wouldn’t expect to see an old pharmacy counter while eating a burger or hot dog, but that’s exactly what’s tucked in the back of Sutton’s Drug Store.
“You know, it looks like a 1964 drugstore that we’ve taken all the shelves out and just put mismatched booths in here,” Pinney said.
Sutton’s started out as a Franklin Street pharmacy in 1923 and offered those services until 2014 when CVS bought out that part of the business. Then Pinney, the fourth and current owner, decided to expand the restaurant side of things.
“The chances of the store probably being here if it wasn't for the restaurant side, we wouldn’t have lasted 100 years anyway,” Pinney said.
Sutton’s is celebrating its 100th anniversary in April, and Pinney has been around for almost 50 of those years.
“My mother and father worked here in the '50s, late '50s, early '60s and got married. Then they went and did their own thing, but I just was raised here in Sutton’s on these stools, and eventually I started working here when I was 13, 14 years old,” Pinney said.
Specializing in comfort food, Sutton’s doesn’t strive to be a gourmet restaurant.
“As you can see, our kitchen is not very big. I mean, we have one 36-inch grill and two fryers,” Pinney said. “Four or five years ago, I had somebody come in and left a review. ‘Loved the food. Oh, my God, the burger was great. The fries are crispy and the cherry Coke,’ he says. ‘But I give it a three star because the place is old and outdated.’ I'm like, you missed the entire purpose of Sutton's.”
Something they do excel in and it’s not on the menu: the feeling inside.
“Do you enjoy it? Do you get up every morning and want to go to work? That's Sutton’s. I get up every morning, and the first thing I want to see is my employees, which are my family. I have cooks that have been with me 25 years and wait staff that have been with me over 25 years,” Pinney said.
Family photos of customers hang from the ceiling and line the walls.
“Jim has been a customer 68 years. He's 95. Still comes every day,” Pinney said.
Pinney has a story about almost every regular customer.
“George the barber, who was at the Tarheel Barber Shop, he was a prankster. He was always up to something. So one morning comes in and brings his candelabra, lit the candles at the counter, so he can eat his breakfast by candlelight. Then all of a sudden, a three-string quartet comes in and plays music while he's eating breakfast,” Pinney said.
Just as customers come and go, Pinney says his time here will eventually come to an end. In the meantime, he’s putting in the work to make sure it’s around long after that.
“That's my goal to make sure it's in a good place so I can leave it where it can continue to operate. We want it to be here another 100 years if we possibly can,” Pinney said.
For Sutton’s 100th celebration on April 12, they’re doing a $1 special which will get you a hot dog or grilled cheese with fries and a drink. Pinney says they offered a 5-cent special for their 95th anniversary, and they sold 2,700 hot dogs that day.