Sutton’s began as a pharmacy in 1923 and became a popular lunch destination over the years. It’s a homey grill that’s hosted some of North Carolina’s most famous people.
In 2004, I was leaving Sutton’s in Chapel Hill when I bumped into Raymond Felton. Literally.
Felton played 14 years in the NBA. But in 2004 he was the starting point guard for the UNC-Chapel Hill men’s basketball team. Felton was rushing into the popular grill and I was rushing out. We exchanged “excuse me”s and moved on.
Felton, who won a national title with the team in 2005, doesn’t remember me, I’m sure, but I remember him. For UNC grads, that’s like running into Madonna and finding out they eat hot dogs too.
That’s all there is to that story. Which makes it the quintessential Sutton’s story. It’s mundane unless it happened to you and it happened in Sutton’s Drug Store, in which case you’ll remember it forever.
On Wednesday, the Chapel Hill landmark celebrated its 100th year in business. Countless North Carolinians like myself have memories like that of Sutton’s, stories of fried food, big sodas, and encounters with sort of famous people.
The food is homey and the employees are nice, but that misses the point. Sutton’s is an almost mystical chance to meet North Carolina royalty while drinking milkshakes and eating hot dogs, hamburgers, and crinkle cut fries.
Politicians, actors, academics, artists, musicians, and, of course, athletes. You’d crowd the booth, look at all the Polaroids on the walls, and whisper if you saw someone who looked familiar or really tall. Actors like Natalie Wood and Rob Lowe. Dean Smith. Michael friggin’ Jordan.
I can’t confirm any of it but someone once told me UNC basketball all-timer Tyler Hansbrough downed several thousand calories per sitting at Sutton’s. It might not be true (who knows?), but it doesn’t sound untrue. Hansbrough is 6’9 and played basketball like a kid who’d eaten 32 bowls of Lucky Charms. All I’m saying is it would require a lot of calories.
Lest you think it’s just a spot for undergrads, one of my favorite memories in Sutton’s is more than a decade after college. I shared a milkshake there with my 2-year-old son. He’d never had a milkshake before and Sutton’s makes a milkshake worthy of being a first one.
Sutton’s began as a pharmacy in 1923 and became a popular lunch destination over the years. It’s on its fourth owner now, and the pharmacy was bought out by CVS in 2014. But the grill endures even after COVID. Its website links to a GoFundMe page launched in 2020 when the pandemic made this sort of intimate lunchtime experience an impossibility.
To date, it’s raised almost $11,000, another sign that North Carolinians who’ve come in and out of this little business like it right where it is.
It won’t last forever. No business does. North Carolina’s flagship university was there before Sutton’s and it’ll be there after.
But the school, and the town of Chapel Hill, wouldn’t be the same without it, which is probably the best thing you can ever say about a little, local business.
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