Dewitt Ferguson served his last chicken salad sandwich this week, but the hugs and well wishes are just getting started.
After nearly 30 years at two different locations in Rock Hill, Ferguson closed up shop on Tuesday, marking the end of a long career in a notoriously stressful business.
"I'm 58 years old," Ferguson said. "I can't do the 90 hours anymore. I'm just tired."
Ferguson had been quietly negotiating to sell to a new owner as part of a deal that would have allowed him to keep working in the kitchen. But the agreement fell through this week and Ferguson didn't see any other suitable choice. His lease runs out at the end of the month.
Some customers cried when they heard the news. Many stopped by to give Ferguson a hug.
"When I didn't eat there, I brought something home," said Joan Stevenson, who visited two or three times a week. "He always had that personal way with people. He talked to everybody and smiled. I hope he'll find somewhere he can make his chicken salad."
For the past nine years, Ferguson served soups, sandwiches, salads and conversation at Market on Herlong near Piedmont Medical Center. He also did a lot of catering around town.
Many long-timers remember him best as the owner of Dewitt's butcher shop on Oakland Avenue, across from Oakland Baptist Church. It operated from 1976 until 1995, when Ferguson left because of foot problems.
At both places, customers would stop by as often as twice a day to chat with Ferguson, say hello to friends and, most importantly, order the famous chicken salad. Some even ate it for breakfast.
With his 60th birthday looming, Ferguson wanted to spend more time with his twin 1-year-old granddaughters, who live in Camden. "The grandchildren right now are definitely a priority," he said.
Ferguson's departure leaves Rock Hill with one less locally owned restaurant at a time when national chains are opening on just about every corner. Across the street, a Fatz Cafe opened a few years ago. Arby's and Backyard Burgers do business up the road.
"The independents are about gone," he said. "You've got Loyd (at Ebenezer Grill), of course Wayne down there (at Durango Bagel). It's just hard to compete."
It's also hard to find chicken salad as good as Dewitt's, said Stevenson, who spoke on behalf of her children, in-laws and even a grandbaby. Asked where she'll go to for look for it, Stevenson asked: "Who knows? You got any suggestions?"