After more than three decades of hosting presidential candidates testing their mettle among voters in the first-in-the-South primary state of South Carolina, the Greenville landmark, Tommy's Country Ham House, is turning off the fryer and shutting its doors.
On Sunday, owner Tommy Stevenson announced that his restaurant would close this spring. The proprietor said he is going to slow down a bit to spend time with his grandchildren instead of waking at 4 a.m. six days a week to make fresh sausage, grind beef and slice pork chops.
“The Country Ham House has been my life,” Stevenson, who turns 80 this year, said in a release. “None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, so I felt now was the time to retire, relax a bit and do some of the things I’ve not been able to do.”
The building is being purchased by a Charleston-based restaurant group that plans to reopen it with a “new dining concept” in 2022.
Since the mid 1980s, Tommy's has been a staple for politicians, wannabe politicos and observers of the process, all gathering around the vinyl-covered tables for southern breakfast staples, as well as plates of fried chicken, biscuits and apple cobbler, with a cup of sweet tea.
In Greenville, at the heart of South Carolina's conservative Upstate region, Tommy's became a regular stop for candidates hoping to connect with mainly Republican voters — although Stevenson has always said all affiliations were welcome. Some notable Democrats like former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina — a South Carolina native — and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio have tried their hand at campaigning at Tommy's.
“These days, it feels like Republicans and Democrats do not have a lot in common, but we have all enjoyed a great meal at Tommy’s Ham House," U.S. Rep. William Timmons, who represents the area, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Tommy Stevenson created a place that brought people from all walks of life together, and Greenville is going to miss it tremendously.”
As South Carolina's primary status grew through the years, so did the popularity of Tommy's among candidates. In 2008, former U.S. Sens. John McCain, Fred Thompson and Edwards all visited Tommy’s in January alone — and not for their first visits.
In the run-up to the 2012 Republican presidential primary, then-U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint said during an interview that “any candidate looking for support in South Carolina, must go to Tommy’s Country Ham House.” Donald Trump visited in 2016, proclaiming that Tommy's sausage was “the best I've ever had.”
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Sometimes, the place was so slammed full of candidates that they nearly ran into each other. In early 2012, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney missed colliding by just minutes at the Ham House, with Romney arriving nearly an hour earlier than planned and making a brief visit so as to avoid Gingrich, who at that point was threatening his GOP frontrunner status.
Crowds of supporters competed for space inside the Ham House just as their campaign buses did out in the parking lot. When Gingrich walked in the door, he mused, “Where's Mitt?" and challenged Romney to an on-the-spot debate.
Gingrich ended up winning South Carolina, pumping the brakes on what — to that point — had been Romney's ascendency. Gingrich's win also put an end to South Carolina's 30-year streak in picking GOP presidential nominees; Romney ultimately topped that year's ticket.
Candidate visits to Tommy's haven't always been appetizing. In 2000, animal rights activists, dressed in pig costumes, unloaded a dump truck of pig manure in the parking lot as George W. Bush sat inside the restaurant — eating bacon, as it happened.
“Let me tell you something about the Ham House,” Bush related during a retelling of the story at a South Carolina rally for his brother Jeb's 2016 presidential candidacy. “Even a steaming pile of manure can’t ruin their good bacon.”
Tommy's has also been the scene for events that have led to political undoings, like a 2009 town hall where then-U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis was berated by constituents for his support of economic bailout legislation.
“He was booed after lecturing the voters for being too conservative and told them to ‘turn off Glenn Beck,’” said Terry Sullivan, a GOP consultant who worked with DeMint and frequently visited Tommy's in the 2000s.
“A lot of political careers may have been launched in that place, but on that day it was where Bob Inglis’ ended.”