The moon is still out when the door swings open. “Good morning. Good to see you,” Jack Sewell, owner of Jack’s cafe, calls to a tall man.
“It’s good to be seen, Jack,” the gentleman responds.
Server Katie Mauldin exchanges a styrofoam box for a $5 bill with the man and then he’s back out the door. Viewing the trade-off from a stool at the counter one wonders at what possible hour did this guy call in his to-go request? It’s 6:30 a.m. and Jack’s opens at 6:15. Then it dawns on me: Maybe this is a standing order. A request filled possibly every Thursday for God knows how many years — two, maybe? Eight? Shoot, 42? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. That’s how long Jack has been manning the grill at 41 George St., first when it was the Hungry Lion and then, for the past 22 years under his own name, Jack’s. It’s a greasy spoon. A vision of the past. A restaurant that looks like it belongs more in The Blues Brothers movie diner scene than it does in today’s Conde Nast-vaunted Charleston.
And yet here Jack has stood through the first Spoleto Festival, four College of Charleston presidents, all of Joe Riley’s reign, Hurricane Hugo, polyester bell-bottoms to jorts, pagers to cell phones, cash to credit cards.
“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen,” Jack says while flipping eight pieces of bacon and cracking an egg. “The money people have to spend. It’s almost all credit cards now.”
It wasn’t like that when he and his partner gave up their home improvement business to take over the three Hungry Lion locations on Broad, George, and a building now gone near MUSC.
“My partner taught me how to cook,” Jack says. Before that, Jack had been in the Navy.
With their construction skills, the two actually installed a lot of the equipment in Jack’s Cafe. A lot of it, as it turns out, is still in use today. That’s part of the charm.
“I think that’s the same waffle iron that was here when I worked here,” says Greg Shore seated on my left. Shore discovered Jack’s in 1990. His good buddy, Edward Hart, CofC’s current music department chair, introduced him to the restaurant when the two were in college and Jack quickly gave Shore a job. “I worked here until 1992,” he says. In fact, Shore enjoyed his time grilling burgers and chatting with customers at Jack’s so much he considered owning his own restaurant. But then he worked at another one and it wasn’t the same. Shore instead became the communication director for St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Pleasant.
“Jack is always so kind to everyone he meets. He’s a real people person,” Shore says. “That’s something I’ve always wished I could do more in my job — remember names and faces and stories.”
Jack’s memory is rather remarkable. Throughout a morning at the counter, half a dozen patrons are greeted by name. Even from the back room near the dishwasher Jack calls out “Have a good day, Mr. Frederick,” when he catches someone leaving.
“He has really loyal clientele,” Shore says.
Loyal clientele and loyal employees. Mauldin has been working at Jack’s for seven years. The all-business server wasn’t pleased when she heard Jack’s was closing on Halloween. “We thought it would be later, in December,” she says. “I’ll just have to work more hours at my second job.” She frowns, but like a little kid scowling because it’s time to go home from their best friend’s house, Mauldin’s grimace appears rooted in sadness more than anger. She’s somewhere in the second stage of grief.
Jack on the other hand is relieved. “I’m ready to not be on my feet all day,” he says. At 67, Jack has spent the last four decades, Monday through Friday, waking up at 2:30 in the morning to drive downtown from his home in McClellanville. By 4 a.m. he’s here. “And I’m still never ready when the customers come in,” he says. Once at the grill, it’s go go go. When he’s not stirring a vat of grits, he’s chopping tomatoes for lunch. When asked how service went yesterday — the day after City Paper reported the upcoming closure, he snaps, “I don’t want to talk about it.” The restaurant was so crowded with folks who wanted to get a last bite, Jack was on his feet for 12 hours without a break.
“I’m looking forward to just relaxing,” Jack says. “Catching up around the house.”
House projects are clearly not happening today though. The door keeps swinging open, and Mauldin lines tickets along the wall. Jack races between orders, dropping bread six slices deep into two side-by-side toasters. A growing stack of bacon rests aside the grill. A 20-something guy sits at a booth poring over a textbook. At another table two grizzled construction workers fuel up for any number of new development projects downtown. The Rolling Stones come on Mauldin’s iPod, another more recent addition. The room gets a little brighter as the first glimpse of sun shines in Jack’s large front windows. And then a bed-headed skateboarder walks in and tucks his deck behind the register. “Morning Tom,” Jack says. “Morning,” Tom responds as he heads back to man the dishwasher.
Before the check arrives, Jack stops by for one more question: If you weren’t a short order cook, what would you be doing?
“I wanted to be a photographer,” he says. “I had a dark room and did some weddings. Now I use digital and shoot for myself.”
Jack smiles, heads back to the grill, and slides a ham omelet and hashbrowns swiftly onto a plate just as he has dozens of times before.
I take a mental picture. Then pay my $4.59 check, and with the echo of Jack’s “You have a good day, Kinsey” behind me, close the door on a piece of this city’s history.