Andrew Dys

Owner of Red's Grill won't be forgotten by those she fed

Flowers at Red's Grill on Tuesday hung in memory of former owner Brenda Stewart, who died Monday.
Flowers at Red's Grill on Tuesday hung in memory of former owner Brenda Stewart, who died Monday.

Few, maybe none, fed more people in her city than Brenda Stewart.

She fed them as owner and operator of Red's Grill on East Main Street for decades before her brother, Lynn, a great guy himself, took it over a few years ago when the knees from a million days on her feet couldn't take any more. She fed them for so many years at the long-gone Main Street drive-in before that, and at the legendary and long-gone Porter's drive-in near the Catawba River on Cherry Road before that. So, when word got around Rock Hill on Tuesday morning that Stewart died at 68, word got around at Red's Grill like word will.

Stewart would have been proud that all the yapping and the laughing went on as the work went on. The smell at Red's was the usual delightful mix of bacon and cigarette smoke. Conversations didn't seem to start and stop, but barrel into each other like demolition derby cars. Blacks and whites and Catawba Indians rubbed elbows at the counter and at the tables and booths. Some customers didn't have to order because they eat there every day, the same thing, and the waitresses know, so the paper bags filled heavy with the food of the working man came up like magic.

A worker from the back refilled the grits pot without being asked. "I need towels!" came the yell from short-order cook "Deanie" Arnold, whom Stewart hired as a 15-year-old girl 19 years ago. Deanie cracked eggs with one hand and flipped sausage patties with the other hand and seemed to scramble eggs with an unseen third hand and flip pancakes with a fourth hand I swear grew from her back.

"Treated me like her own daughter," Deanie said. "Gave me a chance when I needed one, and I never forgot it. She never had any kids. Except us that worked here."

"Eggs up!" Deanie then yelled, something Stewart yelled a million times. Some call Deanie "Little Brenda," and it's easy to see why.

Robin Farnsworth who learned how to wait tables from Stewart so many years ago juggled plates and coffee Tuesday and recalled how she ran out crying on one of her first days because the hustle was too much and Stewart had yelled at her.

"I was a kid, maybe 17, and she came to my house and got me and brought me back," Farnsworth said. "Said she was sorry and treated me great after. She wore a name tag (that) said 'Cloudy,' and none of us ever knew why. She was sunny."

Somebody recalled Stewart saying to regulars, "Siddown and drink your coffee, and I'll be with you in a minute, honey," so many times it became legend.

Up from one table came a woman, a customer named Kathy Elkins, who remembered working with Stewart so long ago.

"I lived way down in the country, she would drive me home every day," Elkins said. "If I heard her tell somebody, 'Get back to work!' once, I heard it a hundred times. On the job, she was all business. One helluva woman, Brenda Stewart was."

From another table rose a woman who proclaimed: "My mother hired Brenda at Porter's all those years ago. I'll call her, tell her you'll be calling."

The mother's name is Clara Stanley, and she is 94 years old. She picked up the phone on the first ring when I called maybe 20 minutes later, and she said, "What took you so long to call? I've been waiting."

Stanley was the pastry lady and cooked inside while Stewart worked the counter and made sandwiches.

"Oh, golly, it must be 50, 55 years ago," Stanley said. "She was just getting started. Hard-working. Customers loved her. I did, too."

That was 1955. Brenda Stewart was 15 years old. A sick mother meant "go to work" for Brenda Stewart, and she worked and cooked and served until she couldn't any more. She took over running Red's Grill -- Rock Hill's oldest continually operating restaurant, open since 1948 -- in the 1980s and kept the name even after she bought the place.

The last few years, she would often come up to Red's drive-through in her green Cadillac, order and say hello and wave, then did the same in a van she drove at the end. It was fitting, proper, on Tuesday morning, that a former co-worker had tacked a floral wreath up on the outside wall near that drive-through, by the door, so everybody could see it. And the flowers were next to a hand-lettered sign that said Brenda Stewart will be missed.