By ANNA BROWN
As the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Bantam Chef approached, Calvin and Annette Walker wondered what they and their family could do to show their appreciation to Union County residents for their years of loyal patronage.
He decided to hold “A Night of Celebration,” with a gospel singing on March 14 at the Tabernacle Baptist Church Family Life Center.
“The good Lord said, ‘This is what I want you to do,’ so, this is what we are going to do,” Walker said. “He has given us 40 years and I’m going to give Him back something.”
The singing will be held from 7-9 p.m. Beginning at 6:30 p.m., while people are being seated, a slide show will play showing old photos from the Bantam Chef, including photos of past employees, ones made at the Bantam Chef’s original location and shots of race cars the business has sponsored over the years. The Buffalo Opry House players will perform during this time.
Others who will sing and perform during the celebration are Serenity, Amy House, the Tabernacle Baptist Praise Team, Gospel Grass, the Philippi Interpretive Movement group, Son Rise Gospel Singers, Morningside Baptist Eternal Praise, Warriors in Spirit and The Childers.
The Bantam Chef in Union opened across the road from its present location on South Pinckney Street in May of 1969. The Walkers said they decided to have the 40th anniversary celebration early so as not to conflict with Easter events in April and with the American Cancer Society Relay for Life in May. One of their daughters, Beth Lancaster, is chairman of the Relay.
David Walker, Calvin’s brother, was operating a Bantam Chef in Chesnee in 1968 and told Calvin that the owners planned to open a franchise in Union. He asked Calvin if he was interested. He and Annette decided to take the chance. He quit his job at the service station but she retained her bookkeeping job in Spartanburg. He had no prior restaurant experience, but he and his brother had grown up around Burr’s Drive-In in Chester, which was owned by their uncle.
“We came to Union with either $300 or $500 in our pockets, Annette and I can’t decide which,” Calvin said with a smile. “Annette was three months pregnant with Beth.”
Originally, Bantam Chef had a walk-up window with no dining room. A small hamburger cost 39 cents. A hot dog was a quarter. Fries were 20 cents and ice cream was a dime. There were six employees with the late Ellen Morgan the first hired.
The hours were long. Calvin would work from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., come home and rest for a couple of hours and then go back and work until closing. In his spare time, Calvin enjoyed restoring antique vehicles and over the years Bantam Chef sponsored countless ball teams and race cars.
Annette worked from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. in Spartanburg and then came to the restaurant and worked until closing.
The Walkers leased the building from the franchise owners for five years and then bought the business.
The Walkers’ daughters, Beth and Michelle, grew up working in the restaurant. Beth’s first job began when she was about 12, serving ice cream. Michelle also went to work as a teen-ager. Both women remember saving their money to go buy jewelry at Smith’s Jewelry Store.
Beth and Michelle continue working a the restaurant, along with Beth’s husband, Michael “Bird” Lancaster, who joined the restaurant in 1992. Michelle’s husband, Paul Kelley, doesn’t work in the restaurant, but he met Michelle there and came in and ordered banana splits so he could see her.
Calvin and Bird, who also serves as chief of the Southside Fire Department, work the breakfast shift and take care of maintenance at the restaurant. Annette’s and Beth’s jobs include bookkeeping, payroll and other human resources. Michelle runs the register. Michelle jokes that she is not a cook.
“She didn’t get that gene,” Calvin said with a laugh.
In 1987, Bantam Chef added breakfast, which has been very popular with customers.
In 1988, the business moved across the street to the former Kentucky Fried Chicken building when KFC moved to the Duncan By-Pass.
“We wanted a drive-through and a bigger sit down area,” Calvin said. The move also allowed the Walkers to expand their menu.
The family said they think what sets them apart from other “fast food” restaurants is the fact they use all fresh ingredients and many items are homemade.
They make their own chili, cole slaw, taco salad and other items. The vegetable soup is Annette’s recipe and the potato soup is Beth’s recipe.
Lettuce, tomatoes and onions are cut fresh daily.
“We still use first quality goods,” Annette said. “It costs more.”
“But you can tell it when you taste it,” Beth finishes.
There are currently 32 employees with Patti Berry the most longstanding — she started in 1988 and has worked breakfast the entire time.
There are many customers the family can count on seeing several times a week or even once a day.
“There are a lot of people, as soon as they grace the doors, you know what they are going to order,” Bird said.
One of those is Wade Hampton, municipal judge for the City of Union. Hampton usually gets a sausage patty on a dinner roll with mustard. It’s a breakfast he enjoyed when Hampton was a young police officer on his beat and Raymond Jolly was operating Jolly’s Market downtown.
“I didn’t know where I could ever get it again, and one morning I went in Bantam Chef and asked for it,” Hampton said. “They said they could make one; that was several years ago. I also like eggs soft scrambled and Calvin and Bird know how to prepare them like I like them. They have good food, a nice atmosphere and a clean place. I look forward to going every morning, me and my friends, eating breakfast, reading the paper and engaging in conversation.”
Another breakfast regular is Arthur State Bank vice president Monte Lancaster. She gets a breakfast sandwich on wheat toast with bacon, eggs and lite mayonnaise. She usually sits at the same table and someone shares a newspaper with her.
“All of the breakfast employees are so nice,” she said. “They know what I want when I walk in the door. They call you by name, they have good quality service and the best coffee in town.”
Jesse and Valerie Blitchington and their son, Jesse, also love Bantam Chef.
“My wife gets a small cheeseburger with mayonnaise and chili and an apple pie,” said Blitchington, a Wallace Thomson Hospital retiree and regular entertainer at area nursing homes. “I like the potato soup and Junior got the vegetable soup and fish sandwich with tartar sauce the last time we were there. They put out good food.”
In the mornings, a group of retired men sit around the “Table of Wisdom,” drinking coffee, eating ham biscuits and bacon and egg biscuits and giving their opinions on the problems of the world. Cone Mills Carlisle Finishing Plant retiree Jack Rash is one of the men. He joined group in 1991. He thinks T.C. Wylie is the last living of the original members. The others were Rochelle Boyle, Carl Beck, Charlie Morris, Marshall Comer and Wilson Lamb. The late Frank Hill was a Saturday visitor to the table.
“I enjoy listening to the other fellows tell stories about older things in Union and what was here in years past,” Rash said. “We discuss local politics, all the topics you can think of. We take on all the world’s problems, all the way across the ocean and back and discuss what is going on.”
Calvin and Annette said if they had it to do over again, they would still come to Union and open a restaurant.
“It has been rough,” Annette said. “There were a lot of sleepless nights. But the Lord doesn’t promise an easy trip. I hope the girls will continue and the customers will come right along for them.”
“The people of Union have really accepted us and they have really been good to us,” Calvin said.