Andrew Dys

February 23, 2013

Owner of Rock Hill’s oldest restaurant dies; friends, workers mourn

Lynn Stewart, 67, died this week, but his restaurant, Red’s Grill, remains. The restaurant, open since 1948, is Rock Hill’s oldest and those who loved the guy mourned his passing.

A funeral loomed in a few hours Friday. Not just any funeral, the owner’s funeral.

But at Red’s Grill on Friday morning – where the doors have been open every day except Sundays since 1948 – the thirsty were dry and the hungry were hungry.

So the doors opened at 5:30 a.m., and four people walked in for coffee.

Even if the guy who was in the back for almost 30 years, Lynn Stewart, is gone.

At Red’s, the customer always comes first because the customers always come. They drive through ice and snow. They walk through flooded streets. At least two wrecker drivers have brought customers that were being towed after crashes.

So Sabrina Aaron, the spatula in her hand looking like a Ninja’s sword, slapped on the first eggs before sunup and cooked with both hands flying all morning. Even with a funeral bow on the front pole.

Stewart died this week at 67, but he lives on in the hearts of people who don’t consider Red’s a diner, but a kitchen table.

“Just here this morning, there were two millionaires eating their breakfast, and a guy right down the counter who is unemployed,” said Wade Comer, who has been a full-grown Red’s customer for 50 years, and has gone to Red’s since he was a tiny kid 60-some years ago.

Comer’s father would drink a Schlitz, and little Wade would sip a Coke.

“Lynn fed the whole city here,” Comer said. “Many times, countless, he fed people (who) didn’t have a nickel to pay.”

Red’s is Rock Hill’s longest continuously operating place to eat. There have been a few owners: Lynn Stewart worked with his late sister, Brenda, running the restaurant for more than 20 years until she died in 2008.

Yet Red’s is not just a diner. Red’s Grill is Rock Hill’s mirror – the crossroads of all incomes, cultures, colors and any other distinguishing factor.

Friday morning, all were discussing the weather (lousy), politics and politicians (lousy), sports (great) and pretty much everything else. A throng ate grits out of little “monkey bowls” and eggs that came out two and three at a time with the yolks just right and enough bacon and fatback to buy a heart surgeon a new yacht.

“I’ve worked here 18 years and knew Lynn 28 years,” said Raleigh Simmons, kitchen manager at Red’s. “I bet we cooked a semi truck full of bacon. Lynn always worked, he did every job every day, including mopping the floors. Generous, he was, a good and decent guy.”

Simmons stopped a minute, emotional over not an employer, but a friend.

“I miss him,” Simmons said. “We all do.”

Still, those workers – Sabrina and Fred (Fred is a woman; her real name, Dorothy, is not used) and Brian and Melissa and so many more – hustled for the dollars that had to be made to feed families.

A living is made feeding the hungry, and the hungry pour into Red’s like a waterfall, even if the beloved owner has died.

Coffee is poured by the gallon, refilled for free until teeth chatter from the caffeine and kidneys float.

At one table Friday sat Shirley Turner, a widow, who ate with her husband at Red’s almost every morning until he died. She comes alone now, and finds she is not alone at all.

“For six, seven years, I have come here every day, and Lynn treated me like I was his own family,” Turner said. “My husband passed; Lynn was so sweet and looked out for me.

“This isn’t a place you go and eat. It’s like a family, where people care about you.”

Dozens of regulars come to Red’s in shifts. Most of the blue-collar guys come early to make it to work by 7 or 8 a.m. After that, the senior citizens and the retirees and pastors and Army veterans and more blue-collar workers in heavy jackets.

The counter and booths are filled with an ever-changing roster of black and white faces and American Indian faces, and the workers are all those colors, too.

All are equal at Red’s. On Friday alone, there were 13 men and two women who came in wearing work shirts from various plants that had their names over their hearts – Emma and Chuck and Floyd.

There is a huge poster of Elvis near the men’s room and hand-written marker board menus offering liver and onions, pickled beets, pancakes the size of manhole covers – all the food that is real and cooked with real hands and therefore delicious.

The owners are named Stewart. There is a sign above the tables that makes it clear that Martha Stewart ain’t one of the Red’s Stewarts.

This is a place where legend has it that ownership was once lost, deed and all, generations ago, in a poker game. Kings beat Jacks, so the grill changed hands in the wee smoke-filled hours.

No lawyer was needed.

Lawyers do eat at Red’s and they sit next to ditch diggers and they ask to pass the ketchup like anybody else, and if they don’t tip, they get a fish-eye that would cut steel.

Nobody has ever asked in Red’s for alfalfa sprouts, tofu. No one has ever wondered if the chicken is free-range or the coffee fair trade or the grits organic. The word “organic” at Red’s is what it should be – a joke, then if pressed, a cuss word.

For so many years, Lynn Stewart was the general of the Red’s Grill Army. He mopped floors and took out the trash alongside any dishwasher. He cooked and did the prep work and met deliveries and cleaned some more.

So many in that restaurant remembered his generosity.

“I was proud for 20 years, more, to call Lynn Stewart a friend,” said Winslow Schock, a Rock Hill chiropractor and everyday regular.

Stewart was not a famous politician, or an athlete on television. He was a cook, and a diner manager and owner.

But at the one place in Rock Hill that has been around for 65 years, Red’s Grill, Lynn Stewart was a friend with an open door and a smile. The doors at Red’s closed Friday at noon, temporarily, for Stewart’s funeral.

Most of the current workers and many former workers were there. All chipped in for a giant guitar made of flowers, because Lynn was a “gi-tar” player in bands almost all his life. Some customers were there.

Red’s stayed closed the rest of Friday, to reopen at 5:30 a.m. today. Real people, hungry and needing coffee, and friendship and love and laughs, have gone since 1948 to Red’s and will again. Hopefully, forever.

Lynn Stewart, people who knew him said Friday, will be missed.

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