Gary's Barbecue open since 1971
By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
CHINA GROVE — Today’s just another day for Gary Ritchie. Well, not really.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the opening of Gary’s Barbecue. Ritchie was 22 years old when he opened his restaurant on April 21, 1971. Six years earlier, he’d gone to work for Johnson’s Barbecue, and he was ready to strike out on his own.
Jim Harris, who ran a restaurant on the south end of town, encouraged him to buy an old Gulf service station that closed when Interstate 85 bypassed U.S. 29. Along with Gary’s father, the two men spent six months remodeling the place, buying used equipment.
Business was good, and over the years, Gary added on three times, until his occupancy rate reached 216. Farmer’s Day and Christmas Eve are two of his biggest days of the year.
But every day is special to his customers.
Darlene Goodman has been coming ever since Gary’s opened.
“This is the place to come eat,” she says. “It’s the best barbecue in North Carolina.”
She and husband Alan come five or six days a week from Goodman Farm Supply on Main Street, bringing their five small grandsons more often than not. The waitresses know Alan likes his fries extra crispy, or as he says, “Burn ’em.”
Local businessman Larry Ervin comes in three or four times a week.
“I love their barbecue, the way it’s made and the way it’s cooked. It’s always perfect,” he says. “This is like Town Hall for China Grove, dontcha think? This is where everybody comes to meet.”
It’s where the China Grove High School class of 1960 meets the third Wednesday of each month.
“We just had our 50th reunion in September,” says Carol Moss. “But you have to understand: Nobody at this table is a day over 50.”
All kidding aside, Linda Hampton says, “We come because we like the barbecue and we like Gary.”
“You always see a lot of people you know,” says Shirley Hoosier. “We love to reminisce. Our class was very close.”
The Rotary Club meets here once a week, and Gary gave a program a couple of weeks ago on the history of the restaurant. Even though he always works the room when the restaurant is full, he is reserved by nature, and doesn’t really like to be in the spotlight. As business has grown, he’s been active in the community, sponsoring Little League and softball teams over the years. He’s in his 15th year of helping sponsor an American Legion team.
The secret to his success, he says, is simple. “You offer good food, good service and a clean restaurant. The easiest thing in the world is to be nice to people. It don’t cost you a thing.”
Besides the barbecue lovers, there are the customers who come in on Tuesday evenings for rib night, and the church groups who come in Wednesday evenings to get barbecued chicken.
There are families who meet up at Gary’s several times a week. On Wednesday, Debbie Beaver was there with her two daughters and three of her five grandchildren.
Gary loves to see that.
“People come in as children, and then they bring their children,” he says. “We’ve had four generations over 40 years. That’s special.”
Another reason people love Gary’s is for the nostalgia.
“It was very plain when I first opened, but then I got a passion to collect antique advertising signs. It looked good. Now I’ve got all my places filled.”
It’s been said that you can’t outbid Gary at auction. That’s not entirely true.
“I’m pretty persistent,” he says, “but I have been outbid.”
Gary says he couldn’t have been in business for 40 years by himself.
“We’ve always had good help,” says Gary, who employs nearly three dozen people full-time and part-time.
“We’ve got good cooks and good waitresses,” he adds. “Without good help, you can’t make it. We don’t work on Sunday, and they like that. We’ve got at least 15 people who have been with us more than 10 years, and seven or eight people who have been here more than 20 years.”
One of those folks is Tracy Amburn, head waitress.
“He’s very demanding,” says Tracy, who’s worked there 15 years. “It’s not a bad thing. He expects the restaurant to be clean and customers to be taken care of. He cooks for us and he takes us places. I don’t want to work anywhere else.”
A waitress comes by the table with an order for catering. Right off, Gary jots down how much food is needed, and hands the ticket back to her.
He credits Joe Rutledge of Security Bank for getting him involved in catering.
“He was a good customer,” Gary remembers. “One year, he asked me to cater the stockholders meeting at the Crystal Lounge at Catawba. It was for 800 people. I told him I had never catered before, but I’d think about it. We did it and it was a success. We catered that meeting until he retired.”
Gary caters all over Salisbury, and for years catered events in Washington for former Congressman Bill Hefner and former Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
“I work for Democrats and Republicans,” he says. “They’re both important to me. I have friends on both sides.”
He was in his van one day when his cell phone rang. It was a call from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, thanking him for the barbecue he’d sent up after Elizabeth Dole lost a Super Bowl bet to the Massachusetts senator.
“How did you get my number?” he asked.
The senators were eating barbecue together at that moment, so he placed the call.
Gary calls it an “unexpected thrill.”
He’s met a lot of people over the years, he says, and made a lot of friends. Although he’s quick to point out that the restaurant business is no cakewalk, he’d do it all over again. Beside him from the beginning has been wife, Sylvia. She worked for him and did the books until three children were born.
“She’s always worked when I needed her,” Gary says.
As for how much longer he’ll work, Gary gets a gleam in his eye when he thinks about a 50th anniversary celebration.
“I might make 50 years if my health holds out,” he says, “and as long as I can keep good employees. And you’ve got to have good, loyal customers. I feel like we’ve got the best customers, just good people.”
Some customers come dressed in farmer’s overalls, while others wear coat and tie.
“It don’t make no difference,” Gary says. “We’ll treat you the same.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn grew up in China Grove less than five minutes from Gary’s Barbecue.
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