Gary’s Barbecue staff, customers look back at 50 years

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, May 11, 2021

By Susan Shinn Turner
For the Salisbury Post

It’s a rainy Monday afternoon at Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove. The oldies station is on, although most of the lights are off. The chairs are up on the tables.

Usually, the restaurant is hopping, but now it’s closed on Mondays, in addition to its traditional Sunday closing.

Gary’s definitely was not quiet on April 21, its 50th anniversary in business. In addition to serving up his beloved barbecue and hot dogs — owner Gary Ritchie’s favorite, says so right there on the menu — Gary also gave out free homemade ice cream from Poppin’ John’s.

It was a good day, Gary says, a day to celebrate the customers who have kept him in business for so long. He grins as he looks over the Post article detailing his 40 years in business.

“I might make 50 years,” he said 10 years ago.

Now he has.

So did he plan to make 50 years when he started the restaurant as a 22-year-old? (He turned 23 the next week.)

“I was planning on trying not to go busted,” he says now. “I didn’t want to be a failure.”

He wasn’t afraid, he says, but he was “anxious.”

But he worked hard, and was successful.

So what’s his secret?

“Good food, good service, and a clean restaurant,” he says.

There aren’t many restaurants who have been around for 50 years with the same owner in the same location. Gary started out in an old Gulf service station on U.S. 29. He’s added on three times over the years, and his current occupancy is 216 (pandemic seating aside).

Gary and Sylvia Ritchie married the year before he opened the restaurant. She always worked when he needed her and has continued to keep the books over the years. They have three children and five grandchildren.

Over the years, Gary has tried to keep the same products and the same food on the menu. The nostalgia factor is key. If people ate at Gary’s 10 years ago or even 20 or 30 or 40, the food will taste just like it did the first time they came.

The restaurant has been a gathering spot for the China Grove Rotary Club as well as classes from China Grove and Landis high schools.

“If anybody calls, we try to accommodate them,” Gary says.

Gary curb-hopped at Johnson’s Barbecue in China Grove before the late Jim Harris, another China Grove restaurateur, encouraged him to open his own place. Jim, along with his dad, the late Eddie Ritchie, helped him renovate the gas station.

In the beginning, the restaurant was open six days a week, from 5 a.m. to midnight.

“We caught the second shift at the mill,” Gary remembers. “I worked really hard in the early years. When the mills went to short time, we started closing at 9 p.m.”

Gary’s current hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.

Becky Withers and her husband, Roger, have been with Gary since the beginning. Their 50th wedding anniversary is July 3.

“You know why, don’t you?” Becky asks. “Roger worked for the mill in management, and that was vacation week.”

She and Roger went to the restaurant for the 50th anniversary celebration.

“It was a bonus to go out and get free ice cream,” she says. “We feel like we’re a part of it. Gary was our longtime neighbor as well. He’s made such an investment in the community.”

If you ask Gary about that, he won’t say much.

“I’m not a bragger,” he says. “I just do what you gotta do.”

Becky also says, “If Roger and I go in, he sits down and talks to us. He wants to be inviting.”

Reserved by nature, Gary has learned over the years to talk with customers.

“I try to be here every day at lunch,” he says. “I try to speak to everybody I can. I want all my cashiers and waitresses to make people feel at home. If you give customers that personal touch, that makes them feel good.”

Becky says her claim to fame is the addition of white slaw to the menu. Before she married Roger, she’d never eaten red slaw.

Becky likes the fact that their waitress, Mary Gray, knows she likes iced tea with 70% sweet and 30% unsweet (and I thought my momma was peculiar with her sweet tea, no ice, and a cup of ice on the side).

During the pandemic, Becky says, “We made sure we went and ordered to support them. The parking lot was always filled up with people picking up orders.”

Gary says curb service carried them through when the dining room was closed. His son, Alan, and Garon Lowe — both with 20 years’ service — run the curb.

“All of my customers have been so good during the pandemic,” Gary notes. “They have tipped the waitresses and the curb boys generously.”

The pandemic also canceled any catering, and he’s decided to keep it that way to concentrate on the restaurant.

Gary’s is a gathering spot in good times and in bad.

Marsha Carter and her family went there for supper the night her mother died. She is the daughter of the late Brown and Cora Lee Ketner.

“She died on a Wednesday night,” Marsha remembers. “As a matter of fact, both of my parents died on a Wednesday night. My brother and I and our families all went to Gary’s. It seemed a logical place to go. We went there to unwind and decompress and just be more normal. It was really nice and I remember it really well. I’m glad we had some place to go.”

Four generations of Marsha’s family have gone to Gary’s over the years. She now goes with her grandchildren. Marsha and her husband, Jimmy, have three children and seven grandchildren.

“Kate, my oldest grandchild, brought her college roommate home to have Cheerwine and barbecue at Gary’s,” she says. “Gary is always there. He’s so unassuming.”

Gary is longtime friends with Sens. Bob and Elizabeth Dole. He’s done plenty of catering for the couple when they worked in Washington, and they still live there.

“I sent them some barbecue about a month ago,” he says.

At Gary’s, however, political affiliation doesn’t matter because Democrats and Republicans alike like barbecue, he’s found.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole sent this greeting to the Big G on Friday: “To my friend Gary, a happy 50th anniversary! Bob and I never miss an opportunity for barbecue from Gary’s. In fact, all the Hanfords and Doles for decades have jumped in the car when someone says, ‘Let’s go to Gary’s!’ Margaret Kluttz and her family recently gave me one of the best birthday presents ever — a huge box of Gary’s mouth-watering barbecue, one-of-a-kind slaw, and incredibly delicious hush puppies, with lots of Cheerwine to boot!  Gary, we love you and are wishing you and all of your team much continued success!”

Doug Morton calls Gary’s an institution from the days he grew up visiting his grandparents in China Grove.

“Five generations of my family have gone to Gary’s,” says Doug, who now lives in Raleigh with wife Margaret. “At least two of those generations have ridden the pig, maybe three.”

Through the years, Doug says, China Grove has been the anchor for his family.

“When my dad retired from the Navy, I joined at the exact same time,” says Doug, the son of Jim and Shirley Morton, who retired to China Grove. “Most times, we go to Gary’s before we go to the house.”

When Doug was stationed in Bosnia, Gary sent him a postcard for a free meal when he returned. Doug still has the card.

“He never gave much away,” he notes, “so I kept that card.”

Gary, he says, “was always thinking about people connected to the town and lifting us up. I probably go to Gary’s five or six times a year, and when I go, he’s there. It’s not just the name, it’s him being there.”

Through it all, Gary has stayed old-school.

“I don’t have a computer here, and I don’t take credit cards,” he says.

There’s no free Wi-Fi, and Gary still carries the original flip phone he bought years ago. He doesn’t text.

“I’m just the same ol’ hotdog slinger I’ve always been,” he says.

So what about 10 more years?

“For right now, I’m staying,” he says. “If I could, who knows?”

And how would this restaurateur want to be remembered? The same answer he always gives: “Good food, good service, and a clean restaurant.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn Turner lives in Raleigh. A native of China Grove, she grew up living less than five minutes from Gary’s Barbecue.