Steele’s Lunch Counter—An Institution

The lunch counter at Steele’s Pharmacy has a regular clientele, one which comes not only for the hotdog-sauce-‘n’-slaw, but because service is fast and often comes with a fillip. That latter quality comes from the personnel who sling the hash . . . no, who sling the sauce at the hotdog and slide the platter to the customer.

Maybe sling isn’t a good term, but the food does take off at times. Roberta Bolner, now a cashier, remembers the time someone dropped a Green River (one of Ben Bradley’s soft drink concoctions) “and it went up my dress—not down my back, mind you, but bounced up. Talk about a cold shock.”

The lunch counter today forms a downtown triangle with its next-door neighbor, The Town House, and Murphy’s to provide most of the quick-lunch availability. A lot of downtowners may go to franchise food stores, but these three stay right busy during every weekday lunch hour.

Steele’s feeds an average of 350-400 a day in its hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. “We’ve gone as high as 650 in a day,” recalls manager Marjorie McMeans, “but that was exceptional.”

On Saturdays, Steele’s still does a heavy lunch business, “but it’s a different group of people,” points out her husband, J.W. “The office personnel who are downtown all week are at home. On Saturday it’s a shoppers and kids crowd.” The figures include carryouts, which are picked up in a white bag at the east end of the counter.

Steele’s has long been something of a tradition in Ashland, though not a continuous one. There was a lunch counter there in days when the drug store was called Steele & Lawrence. Charlie Montague, one of the regulars, recalls when the lunch counter was in the opposite corner, against the north wall. But it was closed sometime during the years when Bill Steele ran the store, and reopened May 13, 1972, when J.W. McMeans took over the operation.

Mrs. McMeans and her sister, Elizabeth Patterson, took charge that day, cooking their sauces and soups on the third floor and trundling them down to the ground level to be served. The kitchen remains on the third floor.

Down through the years, some of their recipes have drawn that steady clientele of which we earlier spoke. Identified for years with the store, though he never actually worked in the kitchen, was Ben Bradley, whose culinary arts have been a feature of Ashland through the mid-20th century.

Bradley still prepares the country ham on Steele’s menu, but he no longer concocts the special syrups from which exotic soft drinks were prepared. Cooks upstairs today are Sylvia Large and Sue Barnett. Behind the cash register is Mrs. Bolner and Roxanne Robinson. Serving and taking orders are Connie Barber, Carol Sparks, Minnie Hanners, Sometimes Mrs. McMeans’ daughter, Diana Vogelsong, and always the red-haired sprite who greets diners as they come through the door—Virginia Armstrong.

Mrs. Armstrong, a veteran food service employee with a know-how and tact rarely seen locally in the trade, quips with her customers. “I haven’t come far,” she says, noting her birthplace two blocks away, on Front Street.

But Ginnie’s encyclopedic mind and broad interests are likely to bring out facts you never knew—and let you have a fine time learning them as you eat.

She has a wide knowledge of the mountains, right down to its “dirty Melungeons”—that race of untraced blue-skinned people who turned up in North Carolina.

Then there was the day Mayor David Welch attempted to correct her vocabulary when she referred to “Dr. Hammond, the ornithologist.”

“You mean orthodontist, don’t you Ginnie?”

“No, ornithologist. He watches the pigeons out his window.”

It takes a sense of humor to work under some of the conditions of tight time and space which are necessary to serve 400 meals. “We work close, here. Sometimes we pin signs on each other and play jokes, and we might say things to each other in front of customers, but we don’t get mad,” Mrs. McMeans said.

She and the other girls agreed Ginnie is a natural star of their show. “When she waits on people, it’s just like she was entertaining them in her own home. People know her, and she knows how and who to talk to.”

The customers are part of the act too. Sometimes sad, sometimes happy, they become part of a larger scene. “You never know what to expect,” Mrs. McMeans said—“Like the woman who came here and sat down one morning with a coat-hanger on her dress. She had no idea it was hanging there.”

Then there was the day Earl Clay started to pay his ticket the same time someone else asked Roberta what time it was. “One-ten,” she answered, and Clay came up with the amount before deciding he hadn’t eaten that much.

“One man in particular kept coming back. He ate with us at least 10 times a day, and though he stayed slim, he did gain some weight before he left town.”

There have been incidents less funny, including a waitress’s defense move with a skillet when an alleged prescription violator threatened McMeans.

But most of the people who dine keep coming back, for the specials, for out-of-mouth news that gets around by noon, before The Independent does. And often some big deals get made at the counter.

“They all come back,” noted Mrs. Hanners, “Except that one fellow who said he was going to will everything to me.”

If Steele’s has one recipe that is traditional, it’s the sauce that goes on the hot dogs. Here ‘tis, courtesy of Marjorie McMeans:


Steele’s Pharmacy Hot Dog Sauce


5 pounds hamburger

2 tablespoons granulated garlic

2/3 cup onion, cut up

3 ½ tablespoons chili powder

Dash of red pepper

3 cups tomato juice

2 2/3 cups tomato soup


Put the first five ingredients in a large skillet and cook until done. Add tomato juice and tomato soup and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes.

Updated: December 9, 2017 — 12:39 am
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