A vanishing breed, this Asheville coffee shop defies the odds

Written by on January 2, 2012 in Buncombe, Community, People, Photo Essays, Region, Top News 2 Comments
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Faithful family: Manager, regulars bound by disappearing tradition, persistent camaraderie

Gnelle Israel wipes down the Rite Aid Coffee Shop counter and clears dishes near the end of her shift at the Asheville diner, one of last to still operate in the drugstore chain. "With so many regulars, they're just like family," Israel says. "I see them more than my own family." Jacob Biba/Carolina Public Press

Gnelle Israel has worked at the same Asheville coffee shop, in what is now the Rite Aid Pharmacy on Merrimon Avenue, since 1972. [Photo essay below.]

Born and raised in the Enka-Candler area, Israel first began working at the company’s Patton Avenue location, in downtown Asheville, soon after high school. At lunch one day with her mother at the coffee shop in the Haywood Street location—where her mother worked for 14 years—she met the supervisor, who said he needed help downtown.

“I started working a couple hours and then kept going up in hours,” she says.

Forty-three years later, she’s still working and is now the coffee shop manager at one of two remaining Rite Aid stores in Asheville.

Once a staple of many Eckerd Drugstores in the southeast, these coffee shops all but disappeared in the 1990s when Eckerd, which was bought out by Rite Aid in 2007, began closing down those that remained.

Israel’s day usually starts out slow. She arrives at 7:30 a.m., preps the kitchen for breakfast and brews coffee. “You never know when people will show up,” she says. By 9 a.m., a cast of regulars who come here for good food, cheap prices and conversation usually begin to roll in.

Among them are Charles and Janet Whitehead, who first came here on a suggestion from a friend over 15 years ago. “It’s the best bargain in town for breakfast,” Charles says. “Gnelle has always been here to take care of us.”

Regulars for 20 years, Frank and Dixie Quinlan describe the coffee shop as a passing history because it’s one of the few original drugstore diners that remain. When they showed up one morning and found the lights out, they didn’t know what was going on. “Gnelle is so faithful,” Dixie says. “We thought this can’t be. Turned out, her sub was just late.”

According to Ashley Flower, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania-based Rite Aid Corporation, the Asheville location on Merrimon Avenue may be the only coffee shop left in the company. Company information says it is the largest drugstore chain on the East Coast, with about 4,700 stores across 31 states.

“It’s something unique we can offer our customers,” Flower says. “You don’t expect to see it when you walk into our stores.”

Though Israel still serves customers breakfast favorites like pancakes, eggs and biscuits, the lunch menu has been cut back considerably, she says. So have the hours. The shop now closes now at 2 p.m. instead of 6.

What definitely hasn’t changed is the faithfulness of the regulars, many who come for the atmosphere Israel has cultivated with her warm smile, good cooking and friendly service. Remnants of Eckerd, including signs advertising their famous hotdog and patty melt, still remain on the walls.

“It’s kind of like family here,” says Randy Burrell, who has been coming to the coffee shop since 1993. He lives nearby and usually comes in on Fridays to kick back with a cup of tea, pancakes, eggs, hash browns and sometimes an apple turnover. “Gnelle makes us all feel at home.”

Israel feels the same. “With so many regulars, they’re just like family,” Israel says. “I see them more than my own family.”

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About the Author

Jacob Biba

Jacob Biba is a contributing photographer to Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jacobbiba@gmail.com.

2 Comments on "A vanishing breed, this Asheville coffee shop defies the odds"

  1. Tom Henderson January 4, 2012 at 3:00 pm ·

    I have known Gnelle since the lunch counter first opened..The food was wonderful then and still is … My wife and i eat breakfast there every Saturday along with another couple..Would not think of going any where else ..I hope we will be able to continue to enjoy Gnelle and her friendship for many years yet to come.

  2. Melinda January 8, 2012 at 9:43 pm ·

    Great story about a wonderful place. I noticed it the other day, although I’ve shopped in the store since the Eckerd days.I admired the old signs on the wall, and will make a point of coming in for lunch soon. It looks very cosy!

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