Edible Field Guide
An Education in Soul Food from OJ’s Diner
In one month’s time, I’ve eaten OJ’s broccoli casserole, creamed corn, mac and cheese, lasagna, cucumber and onion salad, rice, gravy, beans, sliced tomatoes topped with hot sauce, salmon patties, baked fish, fried fish, ribs, baked chicken, fried chicken, pot pie. I’ve tried dark meat, white meat, thighs, wings, breast. And with each sitting, I’ve drunk Sunkist out of the can because, frankly, I forgot it existed and am trying to make up for lost time. Also: they make this banana pudding so good I thought it might cause the table to levitate.
Those of us who write about and study food consider this research, and research is at least half our motivation. I dragged my boss, Scott Gould, to OJ’s Diner on Pendleton Street for one of my many meal-investigations there. Scott is a meat-and-three aficionado, a bonafide tea-guzzling Southerner. “Mamie,” he said, “You realize you don’t even like soul food, right?”
He’s not entirely correct. My maternal grandmother who lived in Covington, Louisiana until her death, prepared crawfish étouffée and gumbo for us each visit. She also dumped butter-baked oyster crackers into a Ziploc, poured in a packet of powdered Hidden Valley ranch dressing, and shook. It’s hands down to this day my favorite snack, which is I suppose another story entirely.
But he’s not wrong either. I’ve never even had a glass of sweet tea. (And there are no excuses—I was born and raised right here in the Upstate.) I’d never tried broccoli casserole until last week, but if there’s one place in Greenville to get educated and your mind changed, it’s OJ’s. To do this article justice, I probably needed to dine there two or three times. Yesterday morning’s breakfast of salmon and biscuits marked my ninth visit.
The story of OJ’s began in the late 1990s, when the diner was owned by Gail McBee and named for her. After Olin Johnson, a friend of hers from church, lost his manufacturing job, she hired him on in the kitchen. OJ’s skill set transcended his gifts in the kitchen, and while customers loved his specialties (namely chicken and dumplings), OJ became known equally for his friendly service and generous spirit. When Ms. McBee retired in 2004, she offered the diner to him. Business being one of the few things not his strength, OJ turned to his sister, Lonita, and her son Greg Johnson. Greg is owner-operator, and can often be found floating through either the Greenville or Easley location, shaking hands with just about everyone. And by “everyone” I mean the three to six hundred guests OJ’s two locations combined serve per day.
I try to find a time during the day that’s quiet, a lull between breakfast rush and lunch, lunch rush and close. I’ve come on a Monday at 7am, a Thursday at 10:45am, hoped for some sort of clearing one Friday at 4:00pm. I’ve spent over half my life working in restaurants, and everyone in the industry knows it’s rude to come into a place of food-service during prime business and ask to speak with a manager. Or server. Anyone employed there, really.
But when OJ’s is open, OJ’s is open. There is no lull. Guests form lines, grab red plastic trays, and wait their ordering turn. Most pass the time by catching up with each other. The diner is a business built on regulars. If you’re a stranger there, you’re a stranger for about three whole minutes. On a single Wednesday lunch break, I counted two landscape crews, a Bible study, a couple cops, six businessmen and women with their suit coats still on, moms and babies, and an elderly woman who said she makes her daughter bring her in two days a week. In the corner booth a group of teenage girls joked with each other until one drew her cell phone out of a purse and demanded of the others: “Alright y’all, someone tell me what you think he meant by this text.”
Shakira Smith has worked at OJ’s for 10 years. Before that she waitressed at a well-known restaurant in the heart of downtown. She did okay there; it was fine. But then Greg Johnson—they’re family—called up and asked if she wanted a job. “Try it out,” he said. “Give me one day.”
“And at the end of that day,” she says, “I made good money and met some really awesome people. So I stayed.”
A framed, sepia photograph of a beautiful woman hangs prominently on the wall of OJ’s. “Who’s that?” I ask.
“That’s Greg’s grandmother, OJ’s mom. She had 16 children and put them all to work in the kitchen.” So maybe we shouldn’t locate the diner’s origins in the 1990s; OJ’s seems like a business that began many moons before the business itself began.
Shakira for the most part works every shift the diner’s open. Monday-Friday, 7am-5pm. “My job is like my child. I take care of it. Having a day off messes up my whole week. If I’m gone I miss my customers. It’s a second family here for sure.”
OJ’s has the best service in Greenville; I’m confident in that. They’re friendly, attentive, and consistent. Shakira says a lot of that she learned from Olin Johnson. “He taught me how to dice onions, how to make my own tartar sauce, how to spoil your customers. He even taught me how to plant flower beds.”
“The thing about Mr. OJ was, he wanted to know what customers liked and didn’t like,” and the only way you can find that kind of thing out is by talking to people. Those conversations built the diner’s foundation of clientele, and the staff and food alike serve to continually both sustain that clientele and build new regulars. Relationships are the foundation of many towns—small and large—and Greenville is no exception.
After leaving the restaurant, my boyfriend calls to ask what I’m doing. “I just left OJ’s.”
“Oh, one of my favorite people works there,” he said.
“Her name’s Shakira Smith.”
907 Pendleton Street
Forest Acres Shopping Center
5284 Calhoun Memorial Highway