Beacon Drive-In: Changing While Staying the Same Is Good Business

The 2016 presidential campaign season is well underway, and if you live in the Upstate, you know what that means: candidates will be at the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg. Rand Paul stopped in for lunch last week, and Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Ben Carson have also come in to enjoy a burger and mingle with potential voters. Rick Perry is due to make a visit soon.

The Beacon has a long history as a campaign stumping stop but an even longer history as a landmark in Spartanburg—it’s been a fixture in town since 1946, and while it has naturally changed with the times, there is a lot that is the same, too. That may be part of its charm.

Current owner/operator Steve Duncan, with a group of six buyers, bought the Beacon in 1998 from original owner John White. Mr. White opened his restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1946, and it has stood through wars, recessions, gas crises, and—importantly for a burger joint—the rise of the fast food industry. “Probably 90% of our menu is the same as it’s always been,” says Duncan, although there have been other changes along the way.

Most notably is the shift indoors—in the 50s, 60, and 70s, it was truly a drive-in, with car hops and young people cruising and meeting up for a milkshake and a burger, sitting on the hoods of their cars to socialize. “Back in the day, I was one of those knuckleheads on the hood of my car,” Duncan says. “We have plenty of married couples here in Spartanburg who met that way.”

Today, although curbside ordering is available, the vast majority of the business is indoors. Customers stand in a line that snakes out the side door on busy days and participate in a process that seems part mystery and part controlled chaos. Diners tell their orders to the “caller” at the head of the line, who yells back a series of unintelligible (to the uninitiated) phrases to the kitchen staff. Miraculously, by the time they move down the counter, a sandwich is handed to them, followed by sides and drinks before they pay and move on to find a table. It’s all remarkably efficient, if rather loud.

Part of that efficiency is likely due to the fact that workers who have been together as long as some of these have been discover a natural rhythm that works. Of the 55 or so employees, over half have been there ten years or longer. Betty McClurkin—known as “Miss Betty”—is currently the longest running employee. “This has been her first and only job,” says Duncan.

The best-known employee was J.C. Stroble, who worked at the Beacon for 54 years—arguably Spartanburg’s most famous citizen, with a CBS News feature in 2011. He passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on in the “talk and walk” style of ordering that he pioneered. A “wall of fame” in the front hallway of the restaurant pays tribute not so much to famous visitors, although those are there, as to long-time employees who worked at the Beacon from the beginning and stayed for decades.

Along with people coming inside, others are ordering takeout—with delivery offered through Hub City Delivery—or placing catering orders. The biggest catering business is the holiday turkeys that are available in November and December. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the restaurant fries, smokes, or bakes 600 turkeys. Turkeys can be bought on their own or with stuffing and gravy, or for about $100, you can get the works: turkey, sides, bread, iced tea, and pie.

One change that was a bit controversial back when it was made was the move to a seven-day operation—Mr. White had always been closed on Sundays, Duncan says, “but we do get a lot of the after-church crowd, and a lot of folks traveling—either coming home from vacation or coming through. We get a lot of first-time customers on Sundays.”

“And one thing a lot of people may not know is that we have a great breakfast menu,” he says, that is offered Monday through Saturday.

The Beacon’s “world-famous” iced tea has not changed (and it truly is well worth the hype), and now you don’t even have to go to the restaurant to get it. It can be bought by the gallon at the restaurant, of course, but it is also distributed in stores in five states in the south.

For those who have never visited the Beacon, the Beacon Beach Bash on Saturday, August 15 would be a great opportunity, with beach music from the Grand Strand Band, shag dancing, watermelon, prizes, and more. All proceeds to go benefit the Spartanburg Police Club.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.