It won't be the same without Snack Bar
Closing time at the Longview Country Club
Many thanks to paid subscriber Greg Lovelace for bringing this story from his hometown to my attention. If you come across a Southern food story that deserves a wider audience, you can always email me at readthefoodsection@gmail.
“Snack Bar,” a weary-looking server in an oversized t-shirt said into the restaurant’s cordless phone last Wednesday morning. As the caller talked, the server scanned the counter, noting who was about to need more tea.
“September 4,” she responded before hanging up.
Just about everyone in Hickory, North Carolina wants to confirm Snack Bar’s last day in business, lest they miss their chance to order country-style steak or kraut dumplings one more time. Or maybe it’s disbelief that’s prompting the phone calls: Octogenarians and their elders are the only ones who remember a Hickory without the Snack Bar.
The problem, from a financial standpoint, is those same old-timers make up a significant portion of Snack Bar’s clientele.
At the start of the pandemic, there was much handwringing about whether restaurants would survive, with anxiety centered on decades-old places that couldn’t be re-created. Yet across the South, where most pandemic restrictions were dropped within months of their March 2020 adoption, those concerns faded by Christmastime. Classic barbecue joints and beloved meat-and-threes continued to serve, flexing takeout muscles they’d developed over decades.
But the crisis posed a serious threat to restaurants patronized mainly by older people, such as Snack Bar. “I would say 80 percent of our people are older, and they were afraid,” said owner Libby Yount, whose late father, Robert Frye, opened Snack Bar in 1947.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, compared to adults aged 18-29, adults aged 75-84 are 140 times more likely to die from COVID-19. It didn’t matter that Snack Bar issued masks to its employees and set up hand sanitizer stations. Rather than court mortal risk, many of the restaurant’s loyal customers stayed home.
After two years of depressed sales, Yount realized there was no way to keep the restaurant going.
“It was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” she said.
Since The Hickory Daily Record earlier this month announced that Snack Bar would shut down on what would have been Frye’s 104th birthday, Hickory natives have flocked to the local institution from as far away as Mobile, Alabama. But Kathy Young never stopped eating at Snack Bar. She comes in once a week for a strawberry waffle.
“Nobody makes them like Snack Bar,” she explained while having breakfast with her brother.
Then her eyes began to water, as her testimonial veered toward despondency. “Where are my grandkids going to come and eat? We got two that love the Snack Bar so bad, we come here for birthday parties.”
Young estimates that she and her husband have a combined total of “probably about 12” grandchildren, many of whom are partial to the chicken tenders at Snack Bar.
That’s not one of the restaurant’s more celebrated menu items, but it’s fitting that the kids would gravitate to chicken strips, since Snack Bar in some ways feels more like a casual employee cafeteria than a typical sit-down restaurant. Individual diners amble in from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., knowing the kitchen will be open and they’ll find friends already eating there.
“I’m normally here every day,” said Harry Heavner, an 82-year-old North Carolina Department of Revenue retiree who started coming to Snack Bar in 2006, after his wife passed away. “I’m not a very good cook, and once you get used to a place, it makes a big difference.”
Around Hickory, Snack Bar is so synonymous with comfort food that customers frequently order without consulting a menu, assuming their favorites are available. “Give me green beans and fried squash,” a man seated at the counter on Wednesday instructed Yount.
“We don’t have squash,” she said. “We have okra.”
Minutes later, a server corrected a call-in customer: “We don’t have chocolate pie.”
Of course, regulars like Heavner don’t need menus either, since the servers fire their orders as soon as they see their cars in the parking lot.
Snack Bar was a very different kind of place 75 years ago when Frye opened it in a boxy building closer to the street.
Frye was a truck driver who’d watched his fellow drivers dump their pay into pinball machines, leaving them short when bills came due. Recognizing an opportunity, Frye started making loans and charging 10 percent interest, an endeavor which underwrote his career switch.
“He got tired of driving,” said Danny Poteat, a classmate of Yount’s whose father was a trucker too. Woodrow Poteat took him to Snack Bar for cathead biscuits and slow-cooked greens.
Back then, Snack Bar served beer, which was the source of a running joke that the whole town was in on. Yount was 12 when she started working at the restaurant in 1958, so she was supposed to hide in the stockroom whenever the local alcohol enforcement agent stopped by the restaurant.
But beer also played a serious part in the restaurant’s history. At the beginning, a neighbor came into Snack Bar every day at 4 o’clock for a free Schlitz. Frye kept popping them for him until he agreed to give Frye first dibs on his lot when he died. According to Yount, the man lived until he was 100, but kept his promise, allowing Snack Bar in the late 1950s to expand into a full-fledged drive-in.
“That’s when all the hot cars and hot guys came out,” Kathy Young remembered.
Young’s brother, Steve McNeely, worked at Snack Bar as a curb hopper.
“This was all awnings and speakers,” he said, waving his hand around the dining room that Yount and her husband, Eddie, built in the 1980s. “And you knowed when someone ordered a cherry vanilla Sundrop with sliced lemon that they had George Dickel. It made the best mixer.”
Before long, Frye had parlayed Snack Bar’s success into a Catawba County restaurant empire, with six locations, plus a steakhouse. But by the 1980s, he’d sold all but one of them off, leaving the Younts in charge of Snack Bar’s legacy.
“Restaurants just started sprouting up,” Poteat said of Hickory in the 1950s. “The best deal was downtown at Rex’s lunchroom: A big old bowl of pintos and cornbread and ice water was 50 cents.”
To put that price in perspective, it’s the equivalent of $5.45 in 2022 dollars.
By contrast, a one-egg plate with livermush, grits, and a biscuit, costs $4.67 at Snack Bar.
“To be honest with you, it’s too cheap,” said Heavner, who usually pays an extra $1.17 for potatoes grilled with onions.
After the Younts took over Snack Bar, they gradually expanded the menu from burgers and po-boys to a full lineup of country cooking. But they stuck with the same customer base that the restaurant cultivated in the 1950s and 1960s, supplying to-go lunches in the 1970s when the teens aged into white-collar jobs at nearby factories and serving hearty dinners in the 1990s when their nests emptied out.
“I’ve always wondered why they didn’t go after the younger people,” said Herman Williams, who’s been a Snack Bar fan for roughly 50 years. He now takes all his meals at the restaurant.
Yount, who’s run the restaurant on her own since her husband died of cancer 15 years ago, has nothing but love for her longtime supporters. But she admits that Snack Bar’s demographics have complicated its revenue picture.
“We went up a dime on coffee and they raised Cain,” she said. “They’re older people and they’re on fixed incomes.”
When Yount decided to shut down Snack Bar, she personally told Jane Isenhour, who eats 12 meals a week at the restaurant. “I used to come seven days a week until they started closing on Mondays,” Isenhour said. “Now on Mondays, I buy myself a small piece of cake and a cup of coffee. I don’t cook and I’m too old to learn.”
Isenhour had suspected Snack Bar was in trouble. She knew the restaurant’s payroll had dwindled from 55 to 27 people, and the remaining employees were struggling to keep up. She’d even volunteered to bus tables one day. “Then I went home and slept for two hours,” she said.
Krystal King learned about Snack Bar’s closing from her mother.
“She called me, and I was really sad it was happening,” said King, a Hickory-born songwriter now living in Nashville. “We have a lot of Southern-style cooking that’s trendy and expensive here, but [Snack Bar] was never fancy or any of that. It was legit country cooking. My husband’s grandparents went there twice a week.”
King had the closing on her mind when she hung up the phone and went to a cowriting session with Wood Newton, best known for his 2001 song, “Riding with Private Malone.” King threw out a few ideas, but nothing resonated until she mentioned Snack Bar.
“That one clicked,” she said.
They started listing everything that’s special about mom-and-pop restaurants, including booths occupied by elderly couples who had their first date there and servers who save you a slice of apple pie.
“I usually had banana pudding at Snack Bar, but we took some creative liberties,” she said of the rhyme scheme used in “Longview Country Club.” (The song’s title is Snack Bar’s longstanding nickname, referring to the restaurant’s stature in its working-class community.)
When King was recently back in town, she and a friend recorded the song on a cell phone and uploaded the video to YouTube. It’s been viewed nearly 1000 times.
“No membership fee/ You don’t have to dress up, except for Sunday after church/ Come in and sit where you like,” Kirstie Kraus sings. “This place gave my hometown a home.”
Regulars at Snack Bar feel very much as though they’re on the cusp of eviction. Isenhour hasn’t figured out yet where she’ll eat instead. When Snack Bar was closed for several months at the start of the pandemic, “It was rough. I went to McDonald’s and Hardee’s.”
A few of the guys have sent out search parties to explore other options, but they’ve returned with stories of noisy dining rooms and $16 burgers.
Steve Lockhart, who eats at Snack Bar twice a week, isn’t optimistic.
“There’s nothing exactly like this,” he said. “This is the only place where we have togetherness.”