After selling countless hamburger, hot dogs, steak sandwiches and other signature fast-food specialties for more than three decades, owners Rodney and Carol Edwards served their last batch of customers at 701 Drive-In on Thursday.
Plans to widen J.K. Powell Boulevard require the restaurant to be demolished. A sidewalk will be located where the cash register now sits. But the popular eatery will re-open early next year as a new business inside the former Etna Station beside the Columbus County Courthouse.
“The best thing that’s ever happened here is that I grew a family,” Carol said. “My customers are my family. They tell me their problems and things about their lives, and I run the drive-thru.”
Working the drive-thru window for the last time at 701 Drive-In, Carol saw many tears from her loyal customers, but she said she is looking forward to seeing her family again at the new location. Her favorite memories of 701 Drive-In have been family gatherings for Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday parties, engagement parties and gender reveal parties.
“People have really turned out for us, and that means a lot,” Carol said. “If you’re going to have a successful restaurant, you’re going to have to live it, breath it and be married to it.”
Rodney explained that his customers feel like family and some people eat there twice a day. He remembered the pay-it-forward mentality of his customers who would give Carol extra money to cover the cost of other customers’ meals. If someone did not have money to pay for their food, he encouraged them to do something nice for someone else and pay it forward.
“We’ve been successful here, and it’s not always about the money,” Rodney said.
Jessica Griffin, Rodney and Carol’s daughter, said it is tough seeing the restaurant close down because of all the memories made there. She said she does not remember a time not coming to “the grill.” Griffin is excited about moving to a new location because she thinks it will be smaller and more manageable for her parents.
“But it won’t be the same,” Griffin said. “I know it’s a new chapter with new memories, but 32 years is a long time being somewhere.
Griffin’s favorite part about 701 Drive-In is being able to meet people. She has a small immediate family, but when 60-70 people show up at the restaurant for Christmas dinner, she realized that family isn’t just blood-related.
Carol’s first cousin, Dale Duncan, said she came to 701 Drive-In to eat every day unless she was out of town. She would either eat in or go through the drive-thru and order something different each time. She was sad to see the business close.
“Change is hard, but sometimes change can be good,” Duncan said.
Clerk of Superior Court Jess Hill said it was a sad day for 701 Drive-In closing down. He felt like it was a monument coming down.
“They’re like family,” CeCe Creech said. “It’s like going to my mama’s house and fixing me something to eat.”
Creech said the Edwards’ business would be prosperous wherever it goes because of the loyal customer base. She feels sad that it will not be in the same building it’s been in for the past 32 years because of celebrating holidays and family occasions.
Austin Batten made a special trip to Whiteville from his home in Charlotte Thursday to eat lunch with his parents at 701 Drive-In. He remembered coming to 701 Drive-In to hangout at night as a teenager instead of the courthouse parking lot. They would watch TV, eat, talk and “have a good time.”
“I used to walk from the weight room after class and get a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich for breakfast and then walk back,” Batten said.
Austin’s mother, Cheryl, said she did not come to 701 Drive-In as much as her sons, but she knew they were safe there every day after school. She made the trip from her job in Elizabethtown to eat lunch with her husband and son. She also thinks no matter where the Edwards set up their business, it will do well.
“They’re just an integral part of the community, they’re going to support them wherever they go,” Cheryl said. “They’re good people, and they’re good at what they do.”