For decades, Anderson’s Restaurant on Elizabeth Avenue was the laid back no frills place to see and be seen in Charlotte. The family-run joint opened by patriarch Jimmie Anderson in 1946 (first as Mercury Sandwich shop) became a favorite among well-known city leaders, politicians and people about town before closing in 2006.
“You could have Dick Spangler reading the paper with a cup of coffee and Hugh McColl in the booth next to him,” said Gary Anderson, who took over the business in his father’s footsteps in 1979. Anthony Foxx, Pat McCrory, Dan Clodfelter and even Patrick Cannon were all regulars among countless other patrons who made the restaurant a daily stop. “The customer loyalty,” said Gary, “is a testament to what my father built. He just knew how to talk to people.”
Growing up in the restaurant, Gary says, is some of the best schooling he’s ever received. In the evenings his father would have him dress up in a suit, visit tables and talk with customers. “It just teaches you how to interact with other people who are different than you and who are going through different things,” he said.
The restaurant’s proximity to the hospital made it a refuge for families in waiting during trying times. “You’d have people come in with the weight of a death or a big surgery on them and you just know they’ve got this anger they want to take out on you,” said Gary. “But by the end of the meal they were just different.”
That was the power of Anderson’s. It was a place where customers came to be family.
Five years after Gary took over the restaurant, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and he watched the agonizing decline of a once charismatic man. “I watched him drop from 170 pounds to 70 pounds and not speak word for a year,” he said.
After his father died, Gary had a pivotal conversation with his grandfather who had also fallen ill. “He told me ‘Here I am an 80-year-old man with the mind of a 30-year-old and I’m dying. Do not make this same mistake,'” Gary recounted. “He told me my dad had always talked about traveling and all these things he wanted to see and do but he didn’t do them. So he told me not to make the same mistake.”
It wasn’t until Gary got married and had kids that his grandfather’s warning really landed. He shut the restaurant down on Sundays to free him up for church with the family. Then he started closing at night to be home with the kids. The scales of his work/life balance were tipping and he wrestled with whether nor not to carry on the restaurant’s legacy or to close and commit more time to his family.
“I struggled with it for about three years,” he said, “because it was my identity. My wife pointed that out, that maybe I was scared to lose my identity with the restaurant.”
In 2006, Gary finally made the gut-wrenching but inevitable call to shut down the 60-year-old restaurant. But not for good. Within weeks he had shifted to the back of the building, running a downsized catering and pie delivery service out of the same kitchen under the same name.
Today, the Anderson’s legacy (and its world famous pecan pie) lives on. There’s just no restaurant space for rubbing elbows with local celebrities.
Anderson’s catering started by accident back in the 90s when someone at the hospital needed food for a meeting and asked if the restaurant would deliver. At the time, the Gulf War had just broken out, and Gary said restaurant business was slow with people wary of the economy and watching the war on TV at home at night. He started picking up catering orders and the business snowballed. When it came time to close the restaurant in 2006, moving his focus to catering was a natural shift with a built-in client base.
As for the pecan pie, it’s been on the menu since Jimmie ran the restaurant and he’s the one who labeled it “world’s best,” a tag line that remains on the sign today.
Anthony Jones has been with Anderson’s for 25 years and has been the sole pie baker (except when Gary pitches in during peak season around the holidays) for the last 16.
What sets Anderson’s pies apart, says Gary, is the big 10-inch diameter, extra deep shell, full pecan halves (not chopped pieces) and homemade everything.
Pies are $23 +shipping (choose from original or chocolate) and have been delivered as far away as Alaska. They’re a huge hit in November and December for the holidays and a number of customers send them as gifts to clients in place of tired old gift baskets. “It’s funny,” said Gary, “we had some customers give our pies as gifts to clients one year and then something else the next and their clients said, ‘Hey! Where’s our pie?'” It’s just that good.
When I asked Gary if the current Anderson’s catering and pie operation would last another generation (his daughter is a sophomore in college and his son is a freshman in high school), he said, “That’s a tough one but personally, I can’t imagine ever not working.”
He remembers a day back when the restaurant was in its prime and he was lost in thought during a slammed breakfast hour, mechanically juicing oranges and looking visibly out of it. A regular asked him what was up and Gary said, “You know, I’m not sure I know what my purpose is.” To which his customer replied, “Do you not see that you touch people every single day?”
Gary brushes it off as being Greek and a hands-on greeter with a pat on the back or a touch of the arm or a kiss to the cheek. But what I know after an hour with him and what I know his customer meant is that in addition to an electric physical presence, he really touches a lot of people’s lives. That is Gary Anderson’s purpose here on earth. He just happens to do it with food.
Connect with Anderson’s