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Gene and Barbara Gregory and their daughter, Amanda, are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of Gene's Fine Food.

Gene’s Fine Food celebrating 50 years
Like a lot of other folks around Union County, Alison Wade Coker says she has been eating at Gene's Fine Food all of her life.
One evening when she was 8 or 10 years old, Gene Gregory, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Barbara, approached and asked Alison and her family if they would like to try an unusual new menu item - chicken lips.
Of course, a chicken doesn't have lips, but on every box of chicken strips there were a few end pieces that were too small to serve to customers as strips. Gene had fried a batch of them for the Wades.
"We enjoyed them so much and they became special to us," Alison said. When the family goes to Gene's to eat on Tuesday nights, chicken lips are their favorite choice, especially for Alison's two children and her sister, Amanda's two girls. And when Alison got married, she asked Gene and Barbara to serve chicken lips at the wedding reception.
"He saved them so we could serve them," Alison said.
For 50 years now, Gene and Barbara have been doing their best to serve their customers. The restaurant opened for business on March 22, 1965, as the Little Mint.
Some things have changed - many have remained the same, such as the fried chicken, the Big Fellow and Gene and Barbara's work ethic.  You'll often find one or both of them working in the restaurant.
"I think that has been the biggest part of their success - one of them being here," said their daughter, Amanda, who was a little girl when the restaurant opened. "People come by and they look for Daddy's truck with the chicken on it."
Did Gene think the restaurant would make it 50 years?
"I was trying," said Gene, now 82. "I really enjoy it. I enjoy people. I've met so many good people. You would be surprised how many come in from out of town and say how much they enjoy the food. They talk and want to make their picture with me. It's just an enjoyable time."
"We were just a young couple," Barbara said. "We've spent all those good years here. Gene has given 200 percent. I think we worked 15 years before we took a vacation. We have been blessed so many ways. Our customers and our relationship with people have made our business a success and what it is today."
Gene and Barbara
Gene and Barbara Harris Gregory were high school sweethearts. Gene proposed one evening during a date at Fincher's Barbecue. He asked if she felt like she could spend the rest of her life with him. She said she certainly could. He asked what Barbara wanted out of life. She told him she wanted to make something of herself.
After they married Gene and Barbara Gregory went to work with Jete Long preparing and selling food for the workers at Monarch Mill. Barbara worked first and second shift and Gene worked third. The food cart was called the "Dope Wagon" - Dope was a nickname for Coca-Cola, which the cart carried, along with cakes, hot dogs and hamburgers. The Gregorys also served plate lunches with a meat and three vegetables.
"The way we worked a lot of times I would meet Gene in the road," Barbara said. "It's been that way ever since we married but we discovered at Monarch Mill that we really wanted to be in the food business."
Long made plans to retire and the Gregorys got word vending machines were going to be placed in the mill. Their aim was to own their own business and they decided it was time. Borrowing money from the bank was difficult then. They decided to contract with Wilbur Hardee, the man who founded Hardee's restaurants. He said he was starting a Little Mint franchise and the Gregory's restaurant would be the first in the state, many would follow and their restaurant would be a training facility for other managers.
The Monarch Mill workers told them they wouldn't make it.
"They said we'd be back," Gene said.
The Gregorys attended restaurant training that was supposed to last two weeks. After two days, they left.
"We knew we knew what to do," Barbara said.
The Little Mint opened on Barbara's birthday. It had a walk-up window, outside picnic tables under umbrellas and no indoor seating. The menu was simple - hamburgers were 15 cents, French fries were 15 cents, drinks were 10 cents, a quarter fried chicken was 69 cents, a half fried chicken with a roll was 99 cents, eight pieces of chicken was $1.69. The lead sandwich was a quarter pound hamburger with cheese, lettuce, pickles and special sauce for 39 cents. It remains on the menu today, The Big Fellow.
"The chickens came in a box of ice; I had to cut them up myself," Barbara said.  "We did it all. We made all of our own sauces. We started out doing well. There wasn't anything else like it in town."
The Gregorys wanted a bank loan to help pay off the restaurant equipment. In his sixth month of business he got it.
"The equipment man came to Union and went to every bank with me, without a lot of luck," Gene said.
Dick Hardy, who was raised in lower Union County, was working with S.C. National in Spartanburg, which did a lot of business with fast food there. Hardy told Bud Jeter, who was with the Union branch of the bank, that he knew the Gregorys and felt like their business would succeed.
"I was at home that night for the first time in six months because I was so depressed," Gene said. "Bud came to my house that night and said we had a loan."
The loan was paid off in five months.
The idea of a chain of Little Mints did not pan out. The Gregorys changed the name of their restaurant to Gene's Fine Food.
Growth over the years
A dining room to seat 75 people was added in 1974. Those on hand for the grand opening included Jete Long and Bud Jeter.
For many years the Gregory's also operated Hilda's Dairy Delight, which sold ice cream adjacent to Gene's Fine Food. The business was named for Gene's mother. When Amanda first went to work there she was so small she had to stand on a milk crate to reach the counter.
She remembers making a bed of empty bread bags and sleeping on a shelf until her parents closed the restaurant for the night. She remembers handing out diner's caps at school when the restaurant first opened.  Now she is a grandmother with a successful longtime business of her own - The Dance Academy.
Gene's Fine Food was for many years a popular place for teen-age cruisers, particularly on Friday nights after the football game.
"I was a cheerleader but as soon as the game was over and the last cheer was done I had to get back here and go to work," Amanda said. "Daddy would let me off a little while to ride, or I was waving at them from the window as they went by. A lot of people met their soul mate here."
Barbara said the cruisers knew not to cut up in Gene's parking lot.
"Gene didn't allow anything to go on wrong," she said. "They would see him come out the back door and they knew they had better straighten up or leave."
Amanda's daughter, Michelle, grew up in the restaurant like her mother did. Michelle's four sons, who range in age from 3 to 13, love to visit the restaurant and take orders, take out trash and check stock.
A lot of local people grew up eating at Gene's. The Gregorys said they are now seeing five generations of people they have served. Maurice Cordell and his wife, Jo, are among the people who have been eating at Gene's for decades.
"We like Gene's chicken," Maurice said. "We eat here a lot on Sundays. We enjoy his soups, too."
Susan Jackson, who has worked at the restaurant for 13 years, said the Gregorys are like family.
"They are a fine family to work for," she said. "I enjoy my job with the public and knowing my customers."
Barbara said she and Gene tried to set an example with their work ethic.
"There wasn't anything in here I wouldn't do," she said. "I would not ask an employee to do something I would not do."
Recently the restaurant added free Wifi and began accepting debit cards. The Gregorys said this has gone over well with customers.
"We do want to thank the people of Union County for letting us stay open for 50 years," Gene said. "They have been good to us. They have stayed right alongside us.  We want to thank them for everything."

(Posted March 30, 2015)

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