Devastating news arrived this weekend with the surprise announcement that Chief’s Wings and Firewater in Greenville has permanently closed. Congaree Road has become the elephant graveyard for Greenville restaurant classics, but even John Paul could see this coming. No liquor license, no wing restaurant.
We knew we needed an emergency post to address the news but wondered how our readers would react to us posting something so quickly after our last post and breaking a two month silence. Nevertheless we decided to get in front of the Monday morning quarterbacking with some Sunday evening nostalgia.
My love affair with the chicken wing goes back to 1990, the summer before 7th grade. Charlie T’s opened up adjacent to the old Mrs. Firecrackers on Augusta down by I-85. I cannot remember exactly how I came across it, but I was hooked. How important was it? Charlie T’s was the last place I ate before getting my braces on - that important. This is what we said about it in the closed bars and restaurants bracket last March:
Hot Dog King (1) v. Charlie T’s (3)
You want to talk about a 12 year old boy’s dream? A wing restaurant with a then-fresh gimmick (tacking dollar bills signed by customers to the ceiling) beside a fireworks shop a short drive from the house. They even had a trailer at the G Braves stadium. The magic left when the original location decoupled from Mrs. Firecrackers and moved across the street to the old Denny’s, but it would still be the best wings in town if it was open.
I love wings so much that when I drove cross-country in 2005 one of the must do stops was the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, the originator of the fried and sauced wing. But anyway, back to the news of the day.
When it came time for me to get my first summer job, there was only one option, that being a waiter at a wing restaurant. Charlie T’s was gone from the original location by then, so I got a job at Chief’s back when it was on Orchard Park Drive in a space only a mother could love.
I showed up one day and said I wanted a job. I had zero service industry experience (or for that matter any experience) but I was a wing lover and ready to work so they hired me. Looking back on that summer I realize I learned so much about the “real world”: about W-4s and W-2s, side work and time cards, marrying ketchup and shift discounts, 86ing and $2.10 per hour, Working Women's Wednesday and happy hour, managers and co-workers, no work/no pay, customers’ inability to pronounce “teriyaki” and most importantly the absolute requirement to tip every single time you have table service. Many of you came of age lifeguarding or babysitting or cutting grass - a cook twice my age forced me to eat a “firewater” hot wing that was so hot I had to drink milk as a chaser. Want to know how ranch dressing is made? With an astonishing amount of mayonnaise. The people I worked with had colorful names on their nametags, like Mister, Coy, Jamie-Girl, and Greg. You will see certain places that have service industry night specials and it is a thing; getting run ragged only to get stiffed on a tip tends to build a sense of family no matter your background. But I have two memories that really stick out.
I preferred to work in the daytime. The tips weren’t as good but they had a wing buffet during lunch. Any leftover wings were headed for the trash can until I showed up. Still, I will never forget my very first night working.
I was shadowing an experienced waitress to learn what to do. She told me to take drink orders, which seemed easy enough.
Experienced waitress (to entire table): “This is Reid, he will be taking your drink orders.”
Me (to first guy at my very first table): “What can I get you to drink?”
Guy: “Dewar’s and water.”
Me: “What’s Dewars?”
Guy (without any hesitation): “Get me another waiter.”
I cannot recall being dunked on harder in my life than by Dewars guy other than the time I was actually dunked on in a church league basketball game.
There was another time when I showed up for work on a Monday only to find the front door locked. I waited and waited (this was before mobile phones of course), wondering what was going on and more importantly if I would be paid for the time that I had been there ready to work but was not clocked in because the door was locked. Finally the owner arrived to tell me that we would not be opening that day and I should go home. When I asked why, he proceeded to tell me the story of how every other employee had been arrested the day before for serving on a Sunday and they were all in jail and needed to be bailed out. Talk about a dodged bullet. The novelty wore off after that and I want on to bigger and better jobs like waiting tables at the short-lived Pizza Inn on Augusta Road.
After that summer I did not go back to Chief’s much before it went corporate and moved to its new location on Congaree (the former Shellcrackers seafood restaurant). I do remember going to the new location many years ago and seeing a manager wearing a headset, which caused me to laugh out loud. At some point it appears they may have even changed the name to Chiefs Roadhouse. One thing is for sure for me - just like Charlie T’s, the magic left with the move to the new location.
As Brian says in Cocktail, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end. But I will never forget My Chief’s Summer.