A Greenville, South Carolina Treasure
The Northgate Soda Shop
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Say you like a little old time rock and roll, a good, homemade cheeseburger and a cherry smash? Boy, do we have a place for you! A small restaurant, with a large personality. Northgate Soda Shop, is not only a neighborhood treasure on North Main Street in Greenville, SouthCarolina, but a county institution. It's been that way for over fifty years now, and owner Jim DeYoung has been the proprietor for thirty-fouryears.
"The shop was originally opened in 1947, by Charlie and Thelma Davis," says DeYoung, "who sold the shop in 1952 to Rex Collins. In 1965, we purchased the restaurant, and have been here ever since." DeYoung notes that the soda shop was originally housed in an adjacent building.
"When it first opened, it was located two doors down, where the beauty shop is now. In the late fifties, they built this building and moved it over here."
Jimmy says that his interest in this type of business was peaked during his days working at a local drug store. "I went to work for Shaw's Pharmacy when I was twelve years old, and worked for them until 1965," recalls DeYoung. "I worked as a Reserve Police Officer during that time as well, and I worked as Deputy Coroner for three years too. But working around Shaw's Pharmacy made me become really interested in this type of place. At one time, all of the stores had soda fountains, but in the mid to late fifties, they started taking the soda fountains out."
DeYoung wanted to preserve the old fashioned ambience of the sodashops, and when opportunity knocked, he opened the door. "The night that I bought the store, my wife and I came down here to look it over, and as we were leaving, there were two boys sitting outside, I guess they were about twelve and fourteen years old. They told me about a year later that they had made a bet that night that they could drive me crazy or run me off within three months. They ended up being some of my best friends. But back then, all the kids hung around here. It was a hangout for the kids, which it still is for some."
Besides the great food, which includes Jimmy's "World Famous Pimento Cheeseburger," there are many other reasons to pay a visit to Northgate,not the least of which is the wall to wall memorabilia. DeYoung has one of the largest collections of old Greenville photos anywhere. The framed prints line the walls like a miniature history museum. On shelves along one wall is a massive bottle collection, which features virtually every type of Pepsi bottle ever made, as well as Orange Crush and MountainDew bottles from decades gone by. There are beer bottles of every kind.
"We have one of the largest collections of beer cans in the state," says DeYoung. "There are about 1,200 different cans. I started collecting things when I bought the shop. A lot of it was stuff Ialready had, that I had at home. My wife got tired of dusting it, so I brought it down here. Over the years, my customers have given me things, and I've bought things, and just added to the collection."
In addition to the photos and bottles, you'll find a parachuting possum, a beer can biplane, and a sizable collection of church fans from all over the state and country.
"My favorite things are my old Pepsi signs, like the bottle cap shaped sign behind us," says Jim. "That one dates back to 1955. And of course my autographed pictures of musicians, Ray Peterson, Arthur Epps, Rudy Blue Shoes and all. Of course I'm proud of my pictures of the late "Fuzz" Reese the greatest traffic officer ever."
A few of the deceased former customers of Northgate Soda Shop have been memorialized with brass nameplates along the lunch counter. The corresponding stools are dedicated to them, including Police Officer "Fuzz" Reese, Sgt. Billy Crain of the Police Department, MorganGoldsmith, and Bob Pike.
"Of course we have one for Elvis too," says DeYoung, smiling. "He comes by here once in a while to visit." Actually, he does drop in, sort of, in the form of Elvis impersonator,Tommy Ingle. Ingle has been known to perform his Elvis routine to a packed house at Northgate Soda Shop on more than one occasion.
Sitting at the lunch counter, there are even more conversation pieces just an arms length away. There's a framed autographed photo of Michael Jordan, books and cd's by local artists and writers, and a reproductionof an old shoe company advertisement that featured Greenville's own baseball hero, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson. High overhead you will find several old license plates. One reads "Dixie." Another reads "Houndog."
"It belonged to Doctor Tom Whittaker's son," recalls DeYoung. "He went out to Texas to work. He got out there and he took a shower, and then sat down on the bed and the electric blanket electrocuted him. The plate said "houndog" because he did a lot of hunting. Little Tom grew up in this neighborhood."
Jimmy's customers are not only his bread and butter, they are good friends, and it is obvious that DeYoung enjoys his time with them, whether he is cooking or just taking a break to come over and chat for aminute. "David Stone is probably my oldest regular customer. He and Polly Goldsmith, Morgan Goldsmith's widow. A lot of my original customers have passed on during the time I've had the shop. Many of the original customers were older when I bought the store. We also have a lot of people bringing their grandchildren in now."
One of the regulars at Northgate is Palmer Brown, an employee of BellSouth. "I've known Jim since we were in the Police Reserves together," saysBrown, a customer since 1980. "I guess it's the people that I like the most here. You know everybody after a short time. And of course, there's the food. My favorite is the chili cheeseburger. He makes real good homemade pimento cheese sandwiches, and egg salad too." "I love the atmosphere, the food and the people," says Candi Lay, a pre-school teacher, and a customer since 1989. "Jim is very friendly. He always comes over and sits down when he has time and talks to the regulars. My favorite sandwich is the BLT, but my most favorite thing is the iced tea. I stop in almost every morning for the iced tea."
"Our best sellers are hot dogs and hamburgers, milkshakes and malts," says DeYoung. "I don't cook stuff ahead of time, so everything is made to order."
Greenville Mayor Knox White is also a frequent customer at Northgate.
"The Northgate Soda Shop has a homey atmosphere where neighbors and downtown workers gather to discuss the news of the day and enjoy ameal," says White. "It's the unofficial city hall of the North Main Street neighborhood, and Jim DeYoung is its honorary mayor."
Beverages are one of the staples that hold Northgate Soda Shop together. There's an original, working, 1950 model Basken-Blessing soda fountain behind the counter, where Jimmy serves up a variety of beverages, including milk shakes, malts, the Pink Lady (cherry and lemonade) and the ever popular Cherry Smash.
The Northgate Soda Shop is a real "family affair," with all three of DeYoung's daughters having contributed to the success of the restaurant. "My wife, Jerry, has worked with me on a regular basis. Leighton, my middle daughter has been the main one that has worked here. My oldest daughter Elizabeth worked here, and so did my youngest daughter,McClure. Leighton and McLure still help me now. If I get in a real bad jam, Elizabeth will come in to help. She's a pharmacist for CVS Pharmacy. Leighton works for the Department of Social Services inSpartanburg, and McLure is a photo technician at CVS."
"Not counting my daughters, I have three employees," says Jimmy. "Lindsey, Maudie and Beth. And I have a part time girl named Lesley."
Just next door is Jimmy's hobby, a small watering hole known as The Other Side. "It's a little pub we opened about four years ago for neighborhood people. We sell beer and wine. We close about eight o'clock at night. We have lawyers and other professionals who drop by after work."
As for the famous and near famous, there have been many who have darkened the doorway at the Soda Shop. One that Jimmy will never forget was a certain baseball legend.
"Years ago, before he was famous, Nolan Ryan came in. He was playing ball at Meadowbrook Park. Vernon Ross was the owner of the baseball team then, and he brought Ryan in here."
DeYoung says that the rewards of his job all come from his customers. "To see people come down here and enjoy seeing the Greenville memorabilia, or to come up and say ÎI enjoyed your cheeseburger, it wasthe best I ever had.' That's the kind of reward I like."
Northgate Soda Shop
918 North Main Street
I have been a regular customer of Northgate Soda Shop for over eight years now, and I never tire of my visits. I can always count on chatting with Jimmy DeYoung or any number of regular customers, including former area radio legend Johnny Batson. One of my favorite things to order is the good old fashioned chili cheeseburger plate, which comes with slaw and fries ($4.00). The food is always prepared fresh, and the beef is ground daily by Parkersway Food nearby. Other favorites are the club sandwich ($3.95), the chicken fingersandwich ($3.25) and the hot dog, with homemade chili ($1.50).
Northgate offers nearly every type of beverage you'd want, from Pepsi to cold beer, from wine to fountain malts, and it's all good. Very good!