Wednesday marked the end of an era in Carroll County history more than 60 years in the making.
Customers lined up to pack the Hillsville Diner as owner Mac McPeak worked his last day March 22 before turning the restaurant over to new owners Bobby and Cindy Bradbury. McPeak’s retirement marks the end of more than six decades of family ownership of the restaurant. McPeak took over the Hillsville Diner in 1983 after the retirement of his father, Dempsey, who had previously run the restaurant since 1966. Dempsey’s older brother, Roy, operated the business before that since the early 1950s.
Wednesday was obviously an emotional one at the iconic Hillsville restaurant as customers came by to visit Mac one last time. Some asked to get their picture taken with McPeak, while others simply wished him a happy retirement. McPeak said he had mixed feelings about his last day at the Diner, where he first worked in the early 1970s for his father while he was in high school.
“Today, it’s been a lot of emotion,” McPeak said. “This has been my life. It’s been 75 hours a week, not much of life, get here at 1 in the morning, get home at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon. It’s a pretty rough schedule, but we do what we can do. My wife, Valerie, and I, we have a lot of catching up to do. She has sacrificed as much as I have. Even though she didn’t work here, we didn’t get to spend much time together. We would see each other in passing and that was about it. So we are looking forward to that, doing a lot of things together.”
Manufactured as a Jerry O’Mahony diner in the late 1920s, the Hillsville Diner originally opened in Hillsville in 1946. Before that, the diner was in Mount Airy, N.C. from 1940-1946. Manufactured in New York, McPeak believes it probably operated somewhere in the northern U.S. before coming to Mount Airy.
“A lot of people think it is a train car, but it is not,” he said. “It was made specifically for a diner.”
Much like the theme song for the 1980’s TV show Cheers, the Hillsville Diner is one of those places where everybody knows your name and they are always glad you came. McPeak, 61, said he thought good service and good food were the keys to the restaurant’s longevity. But none of that would have mattered without such a loyal base of customers.
“The thing about it for what I have seen is when their parents bring them in as younger kids, they bring their kids in, so it’s just generation after generation. It is not for everybody, but for some people it is the only place. We like to feel that we are special. The diner itself is an icon,” McPeak said. “We feel like we gave it a whole lot more and we couldn’t have done it without the great staff I have had. I have to give credit to them because most of them have been with me for many, many years. I brag on my waitresses all the time. Robin Parnell has been there 17 years and Sandra Creasy probably over 20-some years, and Katherine Thomas, too. You just don’t get that in the restaurant business, people that stay with you that long, and so it is pretty cool. That was also one of the things that made today so tough.”
McPeak’s oldest sister, Vicky Cason, was on hand Wednesday for McPeak’s final day. Cason worked for uncle Roy at the Diner, while another sister, Margie McPeak, also worked for Dempsey, the family patriarch. The place is full of family memories.
“My first job was here until I went to Winston-Salem and stayed there. We moved back here last year after almost 50 years. It’s been good to visit with Mac. We had a lot of catching up to do,” Cason said. “This has been his life for 34 years. It’s been in the family for 60 years, so it’s been a really long time.”
The news of McPeak’s retirement leaked on Facebook a few weeks ago. The Hillsville Diner was slammed one particular Saturday, he said, when many people incorrectly thought it was his last day.
“I don’t know how that started, but it’s been good. I am thankful for all our customers that we have had and the generations we have served. We go back a long ways,” McPeak said. “We have had a lot of phone calls from people that have gotten the news somewhere or other. We had a lot of people around the county come in because they knew it was about over with, and that was pretty cool, too.”
McPeak said the Hillsville Diner will continue to stay open as Bobby and Cindy Bradbury were set to take over operations March 23. He said the couple is from Texas, but Cindy is originally from Carroll County.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN