It was the late 1980s and Bob and Irene White wanted to open a restaurant — the question was where?
“We looked everywhere,” Bob White, who is from Dobson, recalled Thursday afternoon of scouting locations all over the area to no avail.
Eventually, the quest took the married couple/business partners on a ride through downtown Mount Airy, where they spotted a century-old building at 243 N. Main St.
“I said, ‘we can make a restaurant out of that,’” White remembered of his vision for the structure that had formerly housed a drugstore and burned at one time.
The result was Pandowdy’s, a business that would go on to become one of downtown Mount Airy’s most-popular gathering spots. People have gone there not only for scrumptious entrees ranging from burgers to prime rib and filet mignon and its trademark Apple Pandowdy cobbler made by Irene White, but also a bar section.
Located to the rear and boasting a wide-screen TV set often tuned in to a basketball or football game, fans have gathered ‘round to watch and enjoy a beer or glass of wine. Adding to the sports-bar ambiance were pennants and other memorabilia lining the walls representing college teams all over America.
Longtime customers have compared it to Cheers, a place “where everybody knows your name.”
However, all the good times and good eating that have taken place since June 1990 ended Saturday when Pandowdy’s closed.
“Twenty-five years went by fast, didn’t it?” White said Thursday afternoon after a busy lunch schedule that has been even more hectic recently with faithful customers coming by for one final meal and to bid good-bye.
While they say the restaurant is thriving, Bob and Irene White decided to sell to another couple planning to open a barbecue establishment in the building. This was mainly triggered by Father Time coupled with the demands of operating a service-oriented business on which the public depends — sometimes for 18-hour days.
White mentioned that he’ll turn 69 later this year. “Just the wear and tear…that’s one of the reasons,” he said of the age factor in the closing. “It’s a tough decision.”
Started in Germany
While White has operated Pandowdy’s for 25 years, his restaurant career actually dates back 47 years to when he lived in Germany, where he was stationed as a U.S. military member.
After the service, he had no job, but through his military connections learned restaurant skills, including how to be a short-order cook.
He also adopted traits of the German culture which would serve the ex-Surry Central High School football player well when he returned to Dobson.
“The Germans are so clean,” White said. “They like to do everything by the book.”
After finding the place to open Pandowdy’s downtown, White knew he might have opposition regarding the bar component that would be breaking new ground as part of a full-service variety restaurant with both day and nighttime hours.
Then-Mayor Maynard Beamer was won over by the emphasis on the dining aspect, with White recalling that Beamer didn’t want to see a “beer joint” evolve.
White said the city government support has been a key for the restaurant’s success, including police, firefighters and public works personnel. He also is thankful to the Downtown Business Association and other groups including the chamber of commerce, downtown merchants, the Surry Arts Council and tourism officials.
And, of course, the Pandowdy’s clientele.
“I don’t call them customers — I call them our friends,” White said.
“They’re like family,” interjected his wife, a native of Washington state.
One of the unique things about Pandowdy’s has been its role as a gathering spot for sports fans of different persuasions to watch their favorite teams in action — sometimes head-to-head.
“We all pick at each other,” said White, a well-known Duke University supporter who recalls things getting interesting at times when the Blue Devils locked horns with rivals such as North Carolina and N.C. State.
“Nobody gets mad over it,” the restauranteur said.
That friendly atmosphere is appreciated by frequent patrons of the mini-sports bar, including Mark Towe, who was perched on a stool in front of the TV set Thursday afternoon.
“Bob and Irene made a home away from home for me,” said Towe, who also has been a frequent visitor on weekends. “I’m going to sort of be lost on Saturday afternoon.”
He agreed that the place has a Cheers bar feel. “A lot of people call me Norm,” Towe joked in reference to a character on the TV show of the same name.
Towe, along with other longtime restaurant patrons, have been coming by with increased frequency lately. “We have been overwhelmed since we announced we were going to sell out,” White said.
He said such friendships have been a part of the business model for him and Irene, whose duties with Pandowdy’s include payroll operations.
“You treat people like you want to be treated when you go out somewhere,” said White, whose other principles include “being open on time, keep the place clean and keeping prices affordable.”
But such a schedule can take its toll.
“I’m the first one in here,” White said of the morning opening, “and I’m the last one that cuts off the lights at night.”
Pandowdy’s has employed about 14 people — including cooks, dishwashers and the wait staff — which also is credited for making the business successful. “It’s called teamwork,” Irene White said.
The staff features many longtime employees who been there since the beginning, and also has included family members off and on over the years.
Though agreeing that the closure is bittersweet, White said he is looking forward to devoting more effort to his 100-acre farm at Dobson and the two also plan to travel and spend time with family members.
“It’s not all work…it’s been a little bit of fun, too,” he said of running Pandowdy’s.
“We’ve made so many special friends.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.