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Saying Goodbye

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By Calen McKinney

The smell of bacon wafts through the air. There is chatter in the background and they are all likely thinking that today is the last day.

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Orville Newton is in the back, kneading the dough for his sought-after homemade biscuits. After a while, he is covered in flour, but doesn't seem to mind.

Newton's wife, Rena, is up front, giving change to some of her last customers. She sends them on their way with a smile.

The scene in the back of the family restaurant is what some might say resembles organized chaos, with a person manning the grill, another at the oven and others coming in and out, quickly, picking up their orders.

In a few short hours, the restaurant will be empty, the dishes will be washed for the last time and the doors will be locked.

Orville's Family Restaurant is now closed, more than three decades after it was opened as a makeshift diner with four picnic tables.

The restaurant will be auctioned Saturday, with the Newtons hoping someone will buy it and open their own diner there. They said a real estate agent has fielded about 600 calls about their business.

Last Saturday, as the Newtons operated their family diner for the last time, many of their loyal, long-time customers stopped by for their last supper.

"You're starting a new chapter," one told Mr. Newton. Another says, "You're ready for a break."

Several said they aren't sure where they will go to get their breakfast fill.

To that, the Newtons say they have replied, "You'll just have to hunt around and find you another place."

Some take home boxes of food and say they will eat it and cry. Others give Mr. Newton a hard time about getting them hooked on his food and then closing up shop.

Mr. Newton thanks them for their support over the years, and shakes their hands. There are more people waiting to say goodbye.

Long-time Orville's customer Joe Huddleston said Mr. Newton introduced him to low calorie bread and syrup, and he is now hooked.

"I mean, I don't know where we're gonna eat at on this end of town," he said.

Carl Bush, who walked to Orville's from his home across the street, said he has been eating there for about 15 years.

"I just came in here one day with one of my buddies." With a smile, Mr. Newton says, "Been comin' in ever since."

Long-time customer Robert Shipp said he feels at home at the restaurant.

"Feel like one of the family," he said between bites on Saturday morning. "Hate to see them close."

Shipp and Bill Myers, 90, sat at the "Table of Knowledge" at Orville's, the place Mr. Newton said many pieces of knowledge were shared between friends.

Myers first came to Orville's just to get something to eat, but has since enjoyed coming for another reason.

"Seeing all them friends," he said.

While the Newtons say they have enjoyed being in the restaurant business for the past three decades, it's time for that part of their life to end.

"After 35 years, it's time to do something different," Mr. Newton said.

His wife agrees.

"Just time to slow down a bit," Mrs. Newton says.

The Newtons began their foray into the restaurant business in 1978. Sherman Reece was operating a store and decided to add a restaurant. The Newtons started K&N with four picnic tables.

"And it started growing," Mr. Newton said.

Soon, the restaurant moved to the Taylor County Airport and became known simply as Airport Restaurant. It later became known as Strawberry Patch.

The Newtons moved to their final location in 1995, on South Central Avenue.

"They said, 'Let's go down to Orville's,' and the name hung on," Mr. Newton said.

Mr. and Mrs. Newton have both had several jobs over the years, from Mrs. Newton spending 25 years working at Fruit of the Loom to Mr. Newton driving a milk truck, serving as a magistrate, working at Fruit of the Loom himself and much more. But operating a restaurant is what stuck.

" ... finally settled on the restaurant," Mr. Newton said. "We've seen some big eaters in the years we've been here."

And some faithful customers came to Orville's three times a day, and Mr. Newton said many sat in the same spot each time.

"It's just like church," he said, with a laugh.

Prices at the restaurant haven't changed much over the years, the Newtons say. The lunch special was once $3.75. At closing, it cost $5.50.

But what has changed, the Newtons say, is those working behind the counters. They say they have hired many young people over the years in an effort to give them a start to their working careers.

And they say they have met many loyal customers and friends over the years. But not all were there to see the Newtons close their doors for the last time.

"We've seen a lot of good friends pass on," Mrs. Newton said.

The Newtons, married for 53 years, have three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Many have donned aprons and Orville's Family Restaurant work shirts.

"We're a close-knit family," Mr. Newton said. "When one hurts, we all hurt."

The couple thought about asking their children to take over the family business, but ultimately decided against that when considering today's tough economy.

"We didn't think they could make it work," he said. "We didn't want to leave them with the headache."

"Restaurant work is hard work," Mrs. Newton said.

The closing of Orville's will put a few people out of work, the Newtons say, but those young people were planning on moving on to other jobs soon anyway.

The Newtons say spending more time with family is something they will do after hanging up their aprons. But doing that won't be easy.

"That's all we know," Mrs. Newton said. "That and Fruit of the Loom."

"Seems kinda like a home," Mr. Newton said. "Put in a lot of hours for a lot of years."

The Newtons say they will also spend more time helping at their church, Pitman Valley Baptist.

"The Lord's ready for us to get out," Mrs. Newton said. "We've worked six days a week since we opened this place."

And the Newtons say they will use their newfound time on their hands to possibly take a vacation, something they haven't done in a long time.

At 71 and 66, Mr. and Mrs. Newton say they are in good health and will continue to stay active.

"The Lord's really blessed us," Mr. Newton said. "We're gonna stay active."

The Newtons say the pressure of owning a restaurant has been piled high for the past few years. The first 15 years were great, they said, but the last few have been the most competitive yet.

"Taylor County's got a lot more restaurants than it had," Mrs. Newton said.

The Newtons days typically begins at 4:30 a.m. with a wakeup call. At about 5, they were at the restaurant preparing for the breakfast rush. Doors opened at 6 a.m. and didn't close until about 8 p.m.

"We cook most everything," Mrs. Newton said. "We make most from scratch."

And they say they took requests, making customers their favorite dishes when possible.

"We tried to cater as good as we possibly could," Mr. Newton said. "Without customers, you don't have a business."

And it's the customers the Newtons say they will miss the most.

"We're gonna really miss the people," Mrs. Newton said. "We've really got close to some people."

Mr. Newton agrees.

"I don't really think it's sunk in," he said. "My favorite thing's coming out and talking to people. I might not know everyone's name, but I know their faces."

Last Saturday was bittersweet, the Newtons say, sharing good times with family and customers, but also knowing that the day was the last of its kind.

"Kinda sad," Mrs. Newton said. "[I will] probably cry when we see it's gone."

Mr. Newton said he believes this past Monday morning, the first day he didn't have to get up and go to work, will be a shock.

"Monday morning when I get up, I'll know I miss it," he said. "In a way, life's ended."

But even though the Newtons say their life is changing, they will take with them the irreplaceable memories of their time at Orville's.

One story they recall is of a young boy and girl who came into the restaurant saying they wanted to get married and have a wedding like none other. Mr. Newton, a magistrate at the time, was happy to oblige.

"We did the ceremony right in the kitchen there, by the milk cooler," he said. "I said, 'Well, you got one.' I don't know if they're still together or not."

The Newtons say they will be there on Saturday when their restaurant is auctioned to the highest bidder.

And though they have hung up their aprons, the Newtons say they likely won't leave the food-making business behind entirely.

Mr. Newton said he and his wife will do some catering and make pies and their sought-after country ham biscuits. When Orville's was open, the couple made about 500 biscuits a week.

"Anybody needs anything, call us," Mr. Newton said. "If at all possible, we'll get it to them.

"I love helping people. That's been my goal in life, to do something for somebody else."