Jackson’s Cafeteria is a regional landmark celebrating a 40th anniversary.Bob Jackson, the founder, is no long around to play his guitar for customers or shake their hands and slap them on the back. He died in 2009 at age 86. But Jackson’s is still a family-owned business. Loyal customers continue flocking to locations in Gastonia and Rock Hill for old-fashioned Southern cooking. When I interviewed Bob Jackson back in 1996 he told me how it all started. Jackson got into the food business after being discharged from the Army in 1951. He ran Jackson’s Bakery in his hometown of Brevard and then traveled for a national bakery chain.In 1951, Jackson went to work for the S&W Cafeteria chain. He stayed with the company for 23 years, eventually becoming manager of the Charlotte S&W. One afternoon as he watched long lines of customers he daydreamed aloud to a friend.“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of these things of your own someday?’ ” Jackson recalled. “And sure ‘nuff, it happened one day.”I recently stopped by the Gastonia cafeteria to see Bob’s daughter, Nancy Martin, who is the comptroller for the family business.She was cashier in 1996 when I met with her dad at the cafeteria which was then located in Gaston Mall. Jackson’s Cafeteria moved to Akers Shopping Center five years ago.Martin told me how her father continued to come by the cafeteria when he retired at age 83. Mostly, though, he stayed around home, playing his guitar, singing, working in the garden and playing with his great-grandchildren.“But he still stayed in touch,” Martin said. “And we still called him for advice.”As she spoke, she nodded at her father’s picture on the office wall.Sometimes, when questions about the business arise, she looks at the image and asks: “Daddy, what would you do?”But she knows what he’d say: “Keep the food good and the customers happy with a good meal at reasonable prices.”Recession hitMartin’s 89-year-old mother, Sara Jackson, still comes by the cafeteria occasionally – staying long enough for a meal and a chat with family and old friends.Back in the 1980s, the Jackson’s Cafeteria chain stretched from Boone and Forest City to Charlotte and Salisbury.But the chain gradually shrank. Last year, when the Shelby cafeteria closed, only two cafeteria’s remained – in Gastonia and Rock Hill. Martin said things really got tough when the recession hit in 2008. People weren’t eating out as muchLike many other businesses, Jackson’s had to tighten up, cutting hours and laying off employees.But things began to pick up.Today, Jackson’s Gastonia location feeds about 4,000 people a week. The cafeteria, open seven days a week, serves lunch and supper and lunch only on Sunday.The core menu is the same, but the folks at Jackson’s add new items from time to time like country fried chicken breast with gravy or fresh fruit cups in season. The customer base includes seniors and families with children. Twice a month, on Thursday evenings, a five-piece band plays for customers in a back room. The new touch brought an unexpected call from Broadcast Music Inc. informing Martin she needed to buy a license for the live performances. She fought it for a while, but finally decided it was worth the money – she’s not saying how much - because the band brought in customers.Hanging inThe family lineup at Jackson’s includes Martin’s husband, David, and brother, Chip Jackson, who are mangers. Her brother Ronnie is president and manager of the Rock Hill store. Her sister-in-law, Sharon Jackson, is cashier at Rock Hill. Chip Jackson’s son, Bo, is also a manager. And Martin’s brother, Jerry Jackson, is disabled and no longer active in the business but is still a stockholder. The Jackson clan tries to fill the shoes of Bob and Sara Jackson, who worked from sunup to sundown and connected with their customers. Like Martin, I remember the time when going to the S&W cafeteria in downtown Charlotte was a big deal. Revolving doors, marble counters, women from nearby Montaldo’s walking around modeling clothes: this was in the heyday of cafeterias.But Martin said the cafeteria business is on the decline. Despite that trend, Jackson’s keeps on. As the family business celebrates it’s 40th anniversary “I hope and pray we’ll hang in there and continue to do what we know how to do,” Martin said.I hope they’re around at least another 40 years.
Friday, Jul. 19, 2013
Jackson’s Cafeteria celebrating 40 years
Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; email@example.com
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