In May, Sandra Thomas opened the Brown Bag Lunch on Main Street in Walnut Cove and she couldn’t be more excited about the new venture.
“I love to cook and I love people so it feels like the perfect job for me,” Thomas said.
As a young girl she never dreamed she’d open a restaurant in a small town of North Carolina. Thomas lived in California for 15 years before moving to Walnut Cove in 1989. She recalls the transition as being a difficult one.
“It was like stepping back in time. But I knew as soon as I figured out where yonder was, I’d know where I was going!” Thomas laughed.
It took a few years, but when her children became involved in school and Thomas began meeting people in the community, she realized her family made the right choice relocating to Stokes County.
“I felt welcomed here and I was very thankful my kids were growing up in this environment,” Thomas said.
As a young mother of three, Thomas spent much of her time in the kitchen. Her children’s friends often came into their home expecting to be fed, and she was glad to do it.
“We didn’t always have a lot of money, but we always had food! That was one of the ways I was taught how you show love — by cooking,” she said.
Thomas grew up watching her grandmother elbow-deep in batters and homemade concoctions. Never once did she see a recipe card or a cookbook.
“My grandmother taught me how to cook, but also a sense of hospitality and a love for serving others. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. There’s a lot of joy in seeing people like what you’ve made.”
Thomas says out of her three children, two girls and one boy, it was her son Rob who shared her love for cooking. Rob often encouraged his mother to open a restaurant. Thomas and her son were often found deep in conversation while flour flew in the air as the two kneaded bread.
“When Rob was an adult, he was always the first to be at the house when I was cooking family meals. He’d see me struggling to get heavy pots and pans out of the oven and tell me to scoot over so he could take them out for me,” Thomas remembered.
Thomas holds those kitchen memories close because her son passed away tragically at the age of 36.
“I thank God for our time together, and I’d like to think he’d be proud of this restaurant,” Thomas said.
Today Thomas keeps her family close and is grateful to be working alongside her daughter and older grandchildren at the Brown Bag Lunch. She refers to each day as a “blessing” and sometimes comes to the restaurant before it opens, just to take it all in.
While Thomas primarily handles the cooking, her daughter Danielle oversees the finances and day-to-day management. She admits working alongside family can sometimes come with its own set of challenges but enjoys spending her days with those she loves most.
“We get mad, we get glad, and we get over it,” Thomas says with a contagious smile.
The community has begun taking notice of the restaurant on Main Street and Thomas created a menu that has folks coming back for more. She is known for her specialty sandwiches — chicken clubs with provolone cheese and buffalo chicken sandwiches, but the most popular is the bacon burger with crumbled bacon cooked inside the 1/3 pound patty of fresh ground beef. Thomas also serves homemade breads and desserts.
“We buy fresh ingredients,” Thomas said, “and customers seem to appreciate that.”
There have been other restaurants in the same location as Brown Bag Lunch, but none more memorable than Vernon’s, a popular diner and a Walnut Cove Main Street staple for decades.
“We’ve heard lots of stories from customers who ate at Vernon’s,” Thomas said. It was one of those customers who told Thomas the history behind the location where she’d opened her restaurant.
On March 18, 1968, 60 African American students filed out of the segregated London School holding signs that demanded a fair integration plan for the county. Race relations were at an all-time high in Walnut Cove at that time. Although Congress had passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act four years earlier, rural communities were still holding onto the way things had always been. African Americans were expected to sit in the balcony of the local movie theater, not allowed inside the Laundromat, and at Vernon’s, African Americans were expected to enter through the back door.
All of that changed on a warm March day at the peaceful 1968 protest. Vincent Withers, a student involved in the march for a fair integration plan in the county, announced to his friends he was thirsty and wanted to buy a soda, but Vernon’s was the only restaurant open on Main Street and Withers knew African Americans were only served through the backdoor.
In a moment of bravery, as a handful of white adults mocked the teenagers, Withers, alongside two of his friends, propped their protest signs along the brick building, walked into the restaurant and laid 25 cents on the counter and asked for a Coke. According to “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White,” people stared inside the restaurant window while Withers drank his soda, then he walked out and resumed the march. After that incident, African Americans were no longer served at the back door of Vernon’s — instead they walked through the front doors of the bustling diner.
History has come full circle. Today, in the same location where Vernon’s once operated is the Brown Bag Lunch, a family-run business is operated by an African American family.
Thomas says unlike those in the past, she doesn’t see color and loves everyone.
“I’m a mixture of Indian, Italian, Greek, European and African American! But I’m just a person. That’s what we all are,” Thomas said.
Whether the community visits the Brown Bag Lunch for a piece of history or conversations on a bar stool overlooking the grill, Thomas says she won’t let customers leave with an empty stomach.
Thedra France, a regular customer of the Brown Bag Lunch said, “It is good home style cooking and really delicious.”
Brown Bag Lunch hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Brown Bag Lunch offers delivery and has a banquet room for parties, meetings, and events. Catering is also available by calling 335-591-9009.