(I was speaking with an old high school friend and his young son recently, and the new construction prep work on the by-pass came up, specifically the location, and the youngster was told it was “across from the Pizza Hut”. And we had to laugh. Because to all us old-timers, that’s not really the lot across from the Pizza Hut. No, we agreed, to us that’s the spot across from where the old Mattress Plant was, where “Nick’s” once sat. Thus qualified, in forced recognition of change in general, and reluctant acceptance of another passing year and more departed loved ones and lost traditions, and in loving memory and honor of the 16th anniversary of its farewell to Marlboro, please enjoy this Herald-Advocate year-end trip down memory lane reprint, from way back in December, 2000, a Master Draft of: “Say It’s Not So! ‘Nick’s Drive-In’ To Close December 24th”)
They say that all good things must come to an end. And the end is almost here for one of Marlboro County’s oldest, and certainly most unique, dining establishments.
But to refer to “Nick’s Drive In” as simply a dining establishment is to completely miss the point. Perhaps it’s best described as a full-on sensory experience, with a meal thrown in.
Regardless, the fact is late tomorrow morning Nick Gliarmis will clean up, cut off the equipment, hang up his apron one last time, take a final look around, turn out the lights, and call it a career. And what a career it has been. After 40 years of feeding everyone from laborers to lawyers, from farmhands to financiers, from cashiers to celebrities, Nick will lock his doors for the final time.
And a Marlboro County and Southern, if not National, treasure will be no more.
The story begins over half a century ago when Nick first came to Marlboro County from Wilson, NC upon his marriage to Bennettsville native Katherine Psihos at the First United Methodist Church on November 5, 1950. Having recently returned from service with the U.S. Army and rejoined his family in their restaurant business in Wilson, the union of Nick and Katherine seemed destined to be in food service as the Psihos family also operated a family-owned restaurant, “The Sanitary Cafe,” in Bennettsville at the time.
With the assistance of the Psihos family, Nick and Katherine were able to re-open an existing restaurant that had been closed as the “N and K Sandwich Shop,” just doors down from his in-laws, in the building which is now occupied by Carolina Cleaners. After about five years downtown, however, Nick and Katherine were disappointed with the low volume of business they were doing at that location and were considering their options when a friend and regular customer, Paul Dowd, offered an opportunity.
Dowd, who owned the Bennettsville Mattress Factory, agreed to construct a building on the then recently-completed 15/401 by-pass that would accommodate the couple’s business, a move that was completed in August of 1955. Rechristened as “Nick’s Drive In,” the new business was expanded to include three meals per day, seven days a week and, in addition to restaurant seating, curb service was also added.
In fact, “Nick’s” became what must have been one of the first restaurants in the country to offer an on-site playground for kids, courtesy of an old double-steering wheel firetruck that sat parked next to the business. For the next 15 years or so, “Nick’s” remained about the same, untouched by the passing of cars outside or time, the only change being a growing reputation as a good spot to gather with friends to grab some grub, or, perhaps, just sit back and enjoy Nick’s no holds barred attitude toward customers.
Grudgingly giving in to America’s newly-discovered fondness for hamburgers and french fries, Nick finally decided in 1971 to reorganize his operation, moving the kitchen closer to the front and adjusting the menu to focus more on short-order items.
The move to the by-pass not only exposed “Nick’s” to more passing traffic, and thus more business, but also unknowingly opened the door to many of the shenanigans that followed over the ensuing years.
Back in the days before Interstate 95 was completed, the 15/401 by-pass was a major north/south thoroughfare and people from all points up and down the east coast of the U.S. often passed thru Bennettsville. Word soon spread about the unusual eatery here, and “Nick’s” quickly became a scheduled stop for people passing thru our area.
Those that visited and left without being harassed in some fashion were the lucky ones. The unfortunate customer was the one who came in unsuspecting of, or worse yet, unprepared for, Nick’s abrasive, if not downright abusive, mannerisms.
Like the guy from up north who ordered his breakfast, then asked Nick to “hold the grits.” To which Nick responded that it was his choice, “eat them or wear them.”
Or the time a regular local customer tried to interrupt Nick to pay his check, only to be told, “Can’t you see I’m busy?! Have your $@%# money ready when you order!” Who then turned to see two out-of-towners reaching into their pockets, then holding up their money to show they were ready to order.
And travelers also unknowingly became the object of practical jokes between Nick and some of his regulars.
Such as the time when Raymond Woodle of Bennettsville, with a wink to Nick, paid his tab with a Confederate $20 bill, right next to where a couple from up north was sitting, who then watched curiously as Nick slowly counted Mr. Woodle’s change back to him — in Confederate bills.
“What kind of money was that?” one of the customers was said to have nervously asked.
“Oh, that? That’s Confederate money. It’s still good down here,” Nick informed them, turning and walking away with a smile.
Somewhere up North there’s probably someone still telling friends about the little restaurant down in South Carolina that still takes Confederate currency.
And being a celebrity made little difference, as singer Lee Greenwood discovered on his visit to “Nick’s.”
Staying in Bennettsville in the course of a concert tour, Greenwood, noted for his song “God Bless The USA,” awoke a little later than most, as entertainers often do, and decided that a full breakfast would be nice.
Unfortunately, “Nick’s” wasn’t serving breakfast at that time of day. And Nick himself was cooking breakfast, regardless of who you were.
Unfazed, Greenwood came over to “Nick’s” and walked in to hear Nick bellow, “Who the &$@# is Lee Greenwood anyway?!”
“I am,” Greenwood answered.
“Good. Then get that phone for me,” Nick ordered, gesturing to a ringing telephone nearby.
Greenwood did as asked, taking an order for two cheeseburgers, while Nick’s employees begged him to make an exception in Greenwood’s case and prepare his breakfast, a plea that Nick eventually granted.
As one might expect, over the course of 40+ years a few odd situations have also developed, A favorite tale that Nick enjoys recalling is the story of the doctor from Fayetteville who regularly ate at “Nick’s.” It seems that, upon the doctor’s death, his widow arranged for the funeral procession to stop at “Nick’s” one last time while enroute to Sumter for her husband’s burial.
Or the couple that Nick says pulled up in big, black Cadillac, came in and asked for a pint of milk and a sausage patty – for their cat.
“All they had was a pack of nabs and a couple Pepsis!,” Nick says, shaking his head. “The cat ate better than they did!”
But it’s the locals who will miss Nick the most, and vice versa. No more adventures such as the one that led to Nick kissing a loudmouth customer while others held him down.
No more lessons to be learned, as the late Bobby Webster discovered when he and his future wife, Hettie, visited “Nick’s” and ordered an ice-cream sandwich, which was not a menu item. But Nick did his best to accommodate the order, taking a couple pieces of toast and spreading on some mayonnaise, then a couple scoops of ice cream, before topping it off with lettuce and tomato.
Presto! Ice-cream sandwich, “Nick’s,” style. And not coincidentally, the last of the ice-cream sandwich orders.
Nick began to slow things down just a little about ten years ago, around the time that his wife Katherine passed away, reducing the menu to breakfast items only, and shortening the hours to allow him to close by 10.00 a.m.
Now the end draws near. And it’s not just outsiders who will feel the loss next week, but also employees such as Dianne Polson.
Polson has worked for Nick for 27 years, long enough to have earned the tile, “Mrs. Nick,” and she admits to feeling a great deal of sadness about the closing.
“He’s been like family to me,” Polson says, adding that her mother, Flora Edna Keating, also worked for Nick, “He helped my mother, and he’s also helped me raise my children and my grand children. He’s just been so good to me.”
“It feels like family breaking up,” she continues. “As much time as we spent together, I should get alimony!”
Proof positive that Polson is feeling melancholy comes from Bennettsville native and “Nick’s” regular Mark Avent, who commented Wednesday morning that, after serving him for 27 years, and with only two days left until closing, Polson finally asked him if everything was OK.
“It took her 27 years to even care,”Avent says with a laugh.
But let’s face it, to be honest, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’ll actually miss, or ever really even cared much about the food at “Nick’s”. The atmosphere, however, will be irreplaceable.
Where else will the regulars be able to to be fed and insulted, at one place, at one time, and at one low price?
Where else will “Nick’s” Golden Girls – Tootsie Thomas, Joyce Huckabee, Shirley McCollum, Corrine Stevenson, and Edith Leslie – go most mornings around 9 a.m. for breakfast, coffee, and conversation?
Where else will a father can a father take a son or daughter on a Saturday morning, which Nick points out is “Family Day”? Who else will give those same kids a treat if they clean their plate?
Now at the end of his career, Nick looks back on 48 years of serving Marlboro County with a sense of appreciation for what life has given him.
“I am really going to miss these people,” he says. “They have made it all worthwhile.”
As for his retirement plans, Nick indicates that he plans to do a some traveling in order to visit some historical sites that he’s only read about. He also plans to get a little more exercise to stay healthy, and rest a leg that often ails, the result of knee replacement surgery several years ago.
“From the waist up, I’m in pretty good shape!” Nick, who will turn 75 next April, says, “But just in case, I do own a little property in West Bennettsville. I just wish Glenn Evans (of Whitner Funeral Home) would let me plant something on it – besides myself, that is!”
And don’t be surprised to see Nick walk into some of the other local dining establishments, or “the good restaurants,” as he calls them.
“It’s finally MY turn to complain!” he laughs.
“In 1951, they nicknamed me ‘The Crazy Greek’,” Nick concludes with a smile. “And I didn’t disappoint them.”