Photos by A.V. Crofts
BEAUFORT – Driving east from Columbia to the South Carolina coast, the upcountry pine trees give way to the low country Southern Live Oaks draped in Spanish Moss. Approaching the coastal city of Beaufort on Route 21, you cross brackish marshlands that hold the promise of a nearby ocean. Crack the window and you smell salt air.
Sgt. White’s Diner sits at the intersection of Rt. 21 and Boundary Street, just as you arrive in Beaufort. Celebrating 25 years in the barbecue business this year, Sgt. White’s has occupied this particular corner for 17 of them, appropriately placed next to the Piggly Wiggly, a classic Southern institution.
Today, I was their third customer, arriving just minutes after they opened at 11:00 AM. A couple was already seated at one of the red Naugahyde booths, their elbows on the red checked tablecloths, feasting.
I was greeted warmly at the counter by hostess Alvena Smalls, who rattled off their entrée selections for the day: fried pork chops, ribs, pulled pork, baked chicken and meatloaf with gravy. And don’t forget the side dishes: candied sweet potatoes, collards, fried okra, butterbeans, corn & bacon, and green beans, to name just a few. With fresh cornbread and bottomless sweet tea or lemonade, no less. All for $7.99.
He was born in Memphis (“I grew up on good barbecue”) and always loved to cook. He grew up spending time in the kitchen with his grandmother, which sparked his interest in cooking. “God gave me this gift,” he told me, “But when I told my mother I wanted to cook, she said, ‘Why you want to be washing all those pots and pans?’” He chuckled at the memory of her disbelief.
Despite her objections, White took an entry-level hotel job in the kitchen and the head chef suggested White enlist in the military to learn how to cook. “So I joined the toughest one,” he told me, “The Marines.” White soon found himself feeding 4000 Marines and thought, “Man, I would love to do this every day.”
After retiring as a Drill Instructor on Paris Island, SC, White enrolled in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. As part of their curriculum they had to design a business plan for a fictitious restaurant. White sketched out the plans for his diner and upon graduating, brought it to life. A quarter century and tens of thousands of pounds of pork later, Sgt. White’s Diner has achieved landmark status.
“I tried to retire and sell the place, but they aren’t going to let me go,” White said.
But White admitted that his restaurant doesn’t feel like work. “It’s not a job,” he explained, “It’s like therapy for me to cook.”
The food headlines at Sgt. White’s Diner, but honoring the women and men who serve in the US Armed Forces plays a key supporting role. A camouflage-bedecked Chef statue at the front door reminds customers to “support our troops,” and two US Marines decals are displayed prominently over the cash register. When former US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates visited Beaufort, White kept the diner open late by special request. White says he’s proud of his service and his staunch advocacy for veterans.
This commitment to the welfare of returning war veterans drives White’s politics. “With all the Iraq War veterans returning home,” he said, “I can’t see Obama messing with the VA.” However, White had some advice for President Obama. “You catch more flies with honey,” he said. “Obama needs to quit being so stubborn and negotiate a bit more. A lot of people are being hurt by the economy. I know everyone fights so much, but we need to work together.”
A Barbecue Summit, perhaps?