Spirit of Rowan 2023: Staying the same can be the best recipe

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

Simple food is often the best food. If it’s made by someone who cares about what they serve, it’s going to taste pretty good. More often than not, it’s going to be delicious. There are countless restaurants in Rowan County that offer more than just a nice meal or dessert, but act as a consistent pillar in an ever-changing landscape.

Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove has been open for over 50 years. When driving down the road it looks like a place that hasn’t changed since it opened. Inside of the restaurant, the walls are lined with old signs and pictures that make customers feel like they’ve traveled back in time.

“I don’t like change, but I’m getting used to it…I try to keep everything simple,” owner Gary Ritchie said.

Ritchie is committed to staying the same as much as he can. He doesn’t accept credit cards, only cash or checks.

“I started back in ’71 and nobody ever used a credit card much back then and so I just hate change. I decided to leave everything the way it was,” Ritchie said. They have settled on a compromise by having an ATM on the premises.

The customers who have loyally returned over the years love the nostalgia and the fact the food still tastes like it used to without getting too expensive.

“I try to keep things reasonable. When we opened a hamburger was 15 cents and the barbecue was a quarter and a drink was a dime. Now things are drastically different because everything costs so much now,” Ritchie said.

As time goes on, Gary’s has become a place that people can rely upon for being there like it was when they were younger. Even as China Grove and Rowan County go through changes, Gary’s is sticking to what they know.

“When we started here, China Grove had about 2,200-2,300 people and now it’s probably about 5-6,000 and it’s growing pretty quick now because they’re building houses and businesses everywhere. I’m not sure how it’ll affect the business, but I’m sure it will improve it, which is good the way it is. I like it the way it is, but whatever happens happens,” Ritchie said.

After eating some delicious barbecue, something nice and sweet is always a welcomed addition to a meal. Since the 1950s, the Dairy Queen in Salisbury has been another blast from the past that people can’t stop coming to. All of the exterior still rocks a vintage design, but unlike Gary’s, they started taking cards a few years ago.

Dairy Queen has been owned and operated by Robert and Melissa Utley for over 40 years. Just like Gary’s, Melissa values that Dairy Queen has stayed the same even with Rowan County constantly developing and growing.

“I don’t think it’s changed much. We still have children and the smiling faces that are delighted to see you dip their ice cream cones. It’s still a happy place,” Utley said. “We’ve basically just stuck to what we’re good at…80 percent of our products are the same as they were 40 something years ago…We try to keep everything the same…We are what we were 45 years ago.”

Utley thinks the reason Dairy Queen has been such a popular spot is because it has been around for so long, people can’t imagine their lives without it.

“The next generation and the generation after. We hear stories all the time, ‘My grandfather used to bring me here and now I’m bringing my grandkids here!’ It’s kind of a generational favorite spot,” Utley said.

Besides believing that Dairy Queen hasn’t changed, Utley is adamant that it doesn’t change going forward. Her brother has worked at Dairy Queen for most of his life and her kids plan on running it in the future.

“There’s nothing like the feel of West Innes. You couldn’t match it if you went and built a new one. It’s the memories of people and people who come by and tell stories and pictures. You can’t replicate that. We’re very, very grateful to have been here for as long as we have been,” Utley said.

Recently, Rowan County has gone through its own evolution to figure out what it’s going to be for those living here in the long term. Luckily, people will always be hungry and Gary’s Barbecue and Dairy Queen will always be there.