From Clemie serving her famous clam chowder to Millie serving the best tuna melt sandwich in town — today this iconic setting takes a place in American history, and Walla Walla too has many stories of former lunch counters.
Lunch counters, where strangers sat next to each other to dine, were an important asset in communities. They were the institution of service and civility and sometimes even the great neutralizer as in 1960 four black college students sat down at the Woolworth counter in Greensbororo, North Carolina. Politely asking for service, their request was refused. When the students were asked to leave, they remained in their seats, drawing national attention to segregation that inspired a youth-led movement to challenge inequality in America.
Lunch counters, luncheonettes, or fountain lunches were often found in department stores starting as early as the 1900s. They were convenient, pocketbook friendly, customer-service oriented, with the wait staff within a few feet — like the friendly bartender. Not only were these counters convenient for the shopper, but they were also convenient for the business to keep their customers in the store. Why send the hungry shopper someplace else to eat?
In 1911, Pennsylvania chain J.J. Newberry Co. was originated by John Josiah Newberry. He would die a year before Walla Walla opened its first Newberry store at 10 E. Main St. in the late 1930s. In November 1955, Newberry’s moved to a larger building, at 116 E. Main. The larger store was a boon to Walla Walla’s employment as it meant a total of 200 people on staff from management to custodians, including 150 local “salesgirls.”
Like the rest of the J.J. Newberry Co. stores, the Walla Walla store sold everything with the exception of groceries. The shelves were lined with inexpensive personal and household goods — from hair gel to live goldfish, hot and fresh popcorn to fabric by the yard; and of course a grilled cheese sandwich to a banana split served at the lunch counter.
The stores remained successful until 1992, when the J.J. Newberry Co. filed for bankruptcy. On January 10, 1976, Walla Walla Newberry’s closed its doors.
In the 1950s, Idaho’s Joe Albertson built an Albertson’s Super Center at 416 E. Main St. on the corner with Touchet Street. It was one of the larger markets in the area, featuring a lunch counter serving hot chicken and turkey dinners for 79 cents.
Businessmen were guaranteed a sandwich and a cigar at Kelly’s Cigar Shop, located on Second Avenue at the former First National Bank building at Alder Street. Lunch was also available at Lutcher’s Cigar Shop and Shep’s Smoke Shop, both on Main Street.
The Book Nook Fountain Lunch’s history went back as far as the early 20th century. It was the corner nook drugstore on Main Street and First Avenue for magazines and newspapers and had a fountain lunch on the second floor. By the 1940s, it became the Balcony Bar with a new remodeled look.
Through the years, the Book Nook counter was managed by familiar faces downtown patrons depended on. Mildred “Millie” Roth in her starched uniforms, not a hair out of place, was serving up the best tuna melt in town. In 1964, Clemie Schwarz had a following for her clam chowder and house-baked pies. In March 1968, Clemie opened her own diner at 31 E. Main St. It was named Clemies, of course. In 1981, the lunch counter became Jack’s Fountain Lunch with owners John “Jack” and Sharon Shaw operating it until its closure.
In the 1950s, a popular spot at 10 N. Second Ave. was known as The Turf. The lunch counter was known for its turkey sandwiches with fresh sides of macaroni and potato salads. It featured a rotisserie where traffic could catch a view of roasting poultry spinning under the hot lights. The beloved counter lived a good life until it closed in the mid-1990s.
September 1947 was the grand opening of Horton’s Fountain Lunch at 104 S. First Ave., owned by brothers Bill and C.G. Horton. Their menu included breakfasts as well as sandwiches and salads for lunch. “Daily Dollar” dinners were offered including: roast beef, baked ham and baked halibut. The Horton brothers hung in there until 1958, and a new fountain lunch took over the space named Dickey’s Lunch.
Wayne and Bertha “Bobbie” Dickey opened their version of a fountain lunch. On Thursdays, Dickey’s featured “Dollar and Dime” dinners with customers reaching into their pockets for 11 dimes to pay for their meal. They retired and closed their diner in 1972.
Not all fountain-lunch action happened downtown. In the spring of 1960, the Southgate Drug Fountain Lunch arrived on Morton Street and South Second Avenue. It was the third store for the Low Cost Drug Centers LLC including: Book Nook and Eastgate Drug Store located on East Isaacs Avenue.
Southgate’s original lunch offering was a heavy fare of broiled steaks and chops for the outdoor sportsmen who dropped by for their hunting and fishing permits. Later their menu became traditional counter fare with sandwiches, fries and ice cream treats. During the school year, it was a popular place to grab an after-school snack.
In July 1993, Southgate Drug Fountain Lunch closed. The space became absorbed by the neighboring grocery store’s expansion. The Book Nook, which had been open for nearly a century, also closed the same day. A lunch counter had been proposed for Eastgate Drug, but it never appeared.
The nation started to see the decline of lunch counters toward the end of the 1970s, but for a few lunch businesses, Walla Walla hung in there for a couple more decades.