A collective sadness seemed to fall over the community Tuesday as news spread of Charles Dowell, the owner of Snappy Lunch, dying at the age of 84.
Dowell was known for his many years of manning the grill in the window of Snappy Lunch, a place where he began working when he was 14. He created the pork chop sandwich which brought tourists from all over the world to Mount Airy to try.
The restaurant opened in 1923 inside a former post office building and provided lunch for mill workers and students at nearby schools. Dowell started working there in 1943. After buying out his partner, he became the sole owner in 1960.
Dowell started showing signs of dementia in his late 70s. His wife Mary eventually took over operation of the restaurant.
Mayor Deborah Cochran said Dowell will certainly be missed.
“Mount Airy has lost one of its iconic figures. For decades we looked in the window at Snappy Lunch and saw Charles Dowell cooking. He was never too busy to ask how you were doing and always made time to speak with visitors about the pictures on the wall. He was more than a cook at Snappy Lunch. He was truly an ambassador for Mount Airy,” said Cochran.
Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, remembered Dowell from when she was a little girl.
“It makes me very sad. My first experience in Snappy Lunch was when I had an Orange Crush in a brown bottle and a ground steak sandwich,” said Jones.
She said this year has been particularly tough after losing Andy Griffith on July 3. George Lindsey, who played Goober Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and Doug Dillard, who was part of the Darlings band on the show, also died this year.
She said Dowell’s wife Mary has been running the Snappy Lunch “for a long time now,” and doesn’t think that anything will change at the Snappy Lunch.
“People will be really sad. It will always be remembered as an establishment that he (Andy Griffith) mentioned on the show and in his recordings,” said Jones.
As far as the Mayberry Days, that begins on Sept. 27, goes everybody will probably want to eat a pork chop sandwich in honor of Dowell, Jones said. The pork chop sandwich eating contest will go on as usual this year, she said.
Jones remembered that Dowell’s pork chop sandwich was featured in “Gourmet” magazine a few years ago and the ground steak sandwich at Snappy Lunch is featured this month in “Southern Living” magazine.
“I’ll never forget his quote in ‘Gourmet’ magazine. They asked him how he made his pork chop sandwiches so tender and he said he used a tenderator. After that, customers would come in asking to see it. He has a priceless quote, ‘Even my customers with no teeth don’t have any trouble with it,’” she said.
Jones said tourists have always come to see the iconic restaurant and taste the flavors of Snappy Lunch after Griffith mentioned it on his show as a great place to take a date.
“Charles is why I became interested in tourism. Before I started working at the arts council, I was working at the chamber. The way we would measure tourism was to get Charles to count how many trays of biscuits he had served to see how many people came in any given day,” said Jones.
Betty Ann Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, which manages the Mount Airy Visitors Center, said Dowell will truly be missed. She said he was a part of the fabric that makes Mount Airy and Mayberry what it is today.
“It’s hard to lose an icon of not only the community, but of Main Street that has meant so much to so many people with his friendly smile and ‘Good morning’ to all of those tourists that would line up outside that door. It was so awesome that he got to show those people what he loved doing, which was cooking,” said Collins.
She said stepping into Snappy Lunch was a way for people to take a step back in time. She said from the stools at the counter to the wooden benches and the swinging screened door, the Snappy Lunch is a place that reminds people of their childhood.
Collins wondered out loud if Mount Airy and Main Street would be what it is today without the hard work and dedication of both Dowell and Floyd’s Barber Shop owner Russell Hiatt.
While some have wondered what will happen to the Snappy Lunch now that Dowell has died, Collins said she has no doubt that things will continue on as they always have.
“It looks like Mary and them are going to continue right on, so Charles Dowell’s legacy will live on for years and years. Not one day passes that someone does not come in through that front door and they’ve already heard about Snappy Lunch and the pork chop sandwich,” said Collins. “I still believe Mayberry and what people are looking for is a state of mind that they just want to get to. As long as they have a place they can go to have that experience, Mayberry will live on forever.”
Dowell’s funeral will be held on Friday at First Baptist Church at 2 p.m. More information on Charles Dowell can be found on page A3 of today’s paper in his obituary.
Reach Mondee Tilley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1930.