Working at Sutton’s Drugstore is like working at Disney World – you’d probably never tire of it.
Don Pinney and John Woodard couldn’t have been any more supportive of me learning more about their small business. Joining them working the lunch shift kept me on my toes. “Need fries at table five”, Pinney yells to Dimas, Sutton’s cook extraordinaire. After a half hour or so, I was decent at wiping tables, filling drinks and delivering food to tables – although my biggest priority was staying out of the way of the fast moving wait staff.
After the lunch rush John sat down and gave me a bit of Sutton’s history. He purchased Sutton’s from Elliott Brummett in April of 1977, who operated Charles Hopkins Jewelry downstairs where Bandito’s is now. Sutton’s was a general store and was the place where UNC students would buy toiletries and dorm supplies. After competition from other large box stores began to heat up, additional seating took the place of merchandise shelves. According to Woodard, “We used to have 19 stools next to the bar, but after we began putting our customers’ pictures on the wall we had a line out the door. It started with 11 pictures, we put them up and then everyone wanted theirs taken.” Hmmm … a brilliant social media strategy in the 1980s.
Pinney grew up at Sutton’s, doing odd-jobs there at the age of 14. His dad worked the soda fountain, which used to be at the front of the store and mom sold cosmetics. Bet you didn’t know that at one time Sutton’s sold more cosmetics than any store on the East coast. As with the apple and tree, Don’s son Clay grew up there and is the heir apparent.
Ask any of the employees and they’ll tell you why they love working there – and why they have no turnover. Pinney treats his employees like family and they have fun there. Holly says she loves Chapel Hillians and adds that if she were fired she’d still work at Sutton’s for free!
But Sutton’s has its challenges. According to Pinney, foot traffic is down 40% since 2007. Rent payments and increasing taxes are a constant struggle. Woodard’s biggest issues include dealing with insurance companies, often having to sell prescriptions below cost.
Having frequented Sutton’s for over 30 years it’s one of my favorite places on the planet. We want to keep small businesses like this open – they are the heart and soul of this state and country.