PILOT MOUNTAIN — A Pilot Mountain institution is poised to veer off into new territory as its longtime owner and operator retires.
The sign on the door of the restaurant at 200 E. Main St. identifies it as “The Sandwich Shop,” but it is universally known by locals as “The Squeeze Box.”
“We call it ‘The Squeeze Box’ because it’s so small you have to squeeze in with everybody else,” explained a man on a bench across the street as he gives directions to newcomers to town who are having trouble locating a restaurant which has one name on its sign but goes by another.
The Squeeze Box opened in 1953, and of its 65 years of existence, Dickie Crump has been there for the past 43 of them. That run came to an end on Friday, Crump’s last day before retirement. With dozens of balloons bobbing against the low ceiling and the tiny eatery fuller than usual, Crump was working the grill as always, while friends and customers stopped by to wish him well as he begins the next stage of his life.
“I started working here in 1975,” said Crump. “Then, I bought a quarter interest in the business in ‘79 and another quarter a year later. Then, I worked with Buster Wilmoth until he retired in ‘96. He was kind of a mentor to me. I wanted to do everything the way he taught me to do it. It’s worked.”
Previous to Crump’s ownership of the diner, it had been owned by Buster Wilmoth and his father-in-law Claude Willard. The original owners were Ray Waller and John Bullington, according to Crump.
Jane Crump, who is Dickie Crump’s wife, has also worked in the restaurant. She said, “The reason it’s so small is the original owners said if they couldn’t make it in this corner, they could move it.”
“Everybody knows that if you need to know something, come in and ask Dickie,” said Jane Crump. “We see everybody. All kinds of people come in here, from the town drunk to preachers, lawyers, everybody.”
Going forward, Jerry Snider and his wife Tabitha will be the folks who know everything, as they have bought The Squeeze Box and will begin operating it on the Crumps’ departure. Snider has a food service background going back to his teen years, starting with barbecue in Lexington, and including stints at Mayflower, C.F. Jones and Pandowdy’s in Mount Airy.
“I even did food service in the military,” laughed Snider.
Snider said he planned to keep the place much as it is, but will be making upgrades and changes mandated by the Health Department after the ownership change. The menu will stay as it is for now, but he plans to add some of his own specialties later on.
“I want to keep the legacy going,” he said.
Snider plans to make “The Squeeze Box” more of an official name by placing a sign outside picturing a box being squeezed by a tape measure. “The Sandwich Shop” sign will remain.
Another difference will be tea. The restaurant does not offer freshly made iced tea as it is too small for an ice machine, but Snider has a plan to work that out. After initial work is done, he is planning to extend operating hours. The Squeeze Box is now open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 a.m. until 1 p.m. Snider wants to extend that until 2 p.m. and experiment with some evening hours, probably Thursday or Friday nights.
“But I don’t want to commit to that yet,” he said. “I need to get settled in first.”
“I have mixed emotions about leaving,” said Crump, “but it’s going to be okay. One chapter closes, another begins. I started here at 20. It’s been a good life, a lot of hard work. The first 25 years, 80-hour weeks were the norm.”
Crump turned to have a word with two exiting customers, Surry County Sheriff Jimmy Combs and Lt. Randy Shelton.
“I eat here every morning,” said Shelton, who lives in Westfield.
“I come over here with Randy,” said Combs. “Dickie is a good friend and a great guy. I wish him the best.”
“My wife says I have to find something to do,” said Crump of his retirement. “We are going to miss everyone. I want to thank everyone for all the support over the years.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.