Food

Gwen Fowler

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Head to the Beacon and 'Call it'

Posted 10/17/2011 12:02:00 PM

“Caaalll it.”

That’s the sound of the Beacon, one of South Carolina’s most popular restaurants for 65 years.

The voice belongs to J.C. Stroble, and that’s his way of asking what you’d like to eat. A Beacon employee for 57 years, he’s the man who makes sure you get exactly what you order. He’s such an institution at this institution that you can buy a bobble head of him.


“He’s certainly the voice and the face of the Beacon,” said Mark McManus, one of the four managers of the famous Spartanburg drive-in. People from all over the country come to the Beacon for the experience and for a meal “a-plenty,” the drive-in’s term for having your sandwich or barbecue served under a heaping mound of French fries and onion rings.

On a busy weekend day, about 4,000 people visit the Upcountry restaurant, McManus said. The Beacon is the second-largest drive-in restaurant in the country, behind only The Varsity in Atlanta.

The most popular item on the menu is the chili cheeseburger a-plenty. The quarter-pound burger is topped with a quarter pound of chili and an eighth of a pound of cheese.

But that’s not all people come for. This huge menu includes fried chicken, chicken fingers, chicken gizzards or livers, chicken stew, and seafood plates with perch, catfish or flounder.

Sandwiches come in banana, pimento cheese, grilled cheese, bologna or ham. If you’re not in the mood for fries or onion rings on the side, order baked beans, potato salad or cole slaw.

After Stroble takes your order, he calls it to the kitchen. No one writes it down or enters it into a computer. You move down the line, and, within minutes, your tray of food is ready for you.

At the end of the line, you’ll probably want to order sweet tea. Most people do. The Beacon claims to sell more tea than any other single restaurant in the nation. You can even buy a half-gallon to take home or pick it up at a number of grocery stores, including Piggly Wiggly, Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie.

And if you’ve still got room after all that food, stroll over to the Dairy Bar for a cone, a sundae or banana split. Or order a slice of apple or pecan pie or a serving of peach cobbler.

When the Beacon was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, host Guy Fieri was shown how to make onion rings, sampled the chicken stew and spent time with Stroble learning to call an order.

John White opened the Beacon on Thanksgiving Day in 1946. That was a time when people enjoyed driving and wanted to be seen in their cars, manager Sam Maw said. At the original Beacon location, diners walked up to a window to order and then sat in their cars to eat.

A second building was built in the 1950s on the site of the current restaurant, on the street now know as John White Boulevard. It was replaced by a new restaurant in the 1970s that has been expanded over the years and seats 350. The Dairy Bar was added in 1999.

White retired in 1998, and brothers-in-law Sam Maw and Steve McManus bought the Beacon. White died in February 2011.

Four managers oversee the restaurant, including Sam Maw, son of owner Maw; Mark McManus, son of Steve McManus; Steve Duncan and general manager Kenny Church.

Much of the business still operates the way White set it up, from the way food orders are shouted to the busy kitchen to the popularity of the iced tea.

One thing that has changed is that Beacon tea has been available in grocery stores since 2001.

“Mr. White had started serving tea years ago and developed quite a following,” manager Sam Maw said.

During negotiations to buy the Beacon, he said, White pointed out how much tea was sold there. About 3,000 gallons were being sold a week, Maw said, including about 1,000 gallons sold in jugs to go.

“His advice was to figure out a way to get it bottled and sell it in grocery stores,” Maw said. The Beacon makes four flavors – sweet, lemon, diet and peach – and makes anywhere from 4,000 to 12,000 gallons a week.

As for The Beacon’s claim to sell more tea than any other restaurant in the world, Maw said White was once given a plaque by Tetley tea saying that.

“We still make that claim, and no one has ever challenged it,” he said.

J.C. Stroble is not the Beacon’s only long-time employee. Charles Wiggleton has been there 46 years, and his brother, Jerry Wiggleton, has worked there 30 years.

“There were 13 siblings in the Wiggleton family, and at one time six of them worked here,” Mark McManus said.

Stroble, 72, started working at the Beacon when he was 15. In the 1970s, he developed glaucoma and was legally blind by the age of 40. Still, he’s continued to work every day when he could have been on disability, Maw said.

In early August, there was a celebration for Stroble at the Beacon when a section of a city street was renamed J.C. Stroble Boulevard. Appropriately, J.C. Stroble Boulevard and John White Boulevard intersect near the Beacon.