It’s not unusual to drive into a small town and find an old fashioned diner, but Sally’s Sandwich Shop in Pawhuska has an interesting story.
The owner, Sally Carroll took over the place in 1949 and is still working behind the counter to this day.
Walking into Sally’s Sandwich Shop in downtown Pawhuska might not seem any different than any other small diner in any other small town.
Local men and women sit at a bar which stretches about 30 feet in a room which isn’t any wider than maybe 15 feet.
But, then behind the elongated counter stands Sally Carroll. The tiny, Native American woman who doesn’t immediately read as 96-years-old greets us and invites us to pick a stool.
Sally bought this place for five-thousand dollars in 1949, and sold food and beer until the 1970s when a patron suggested removing alcohol. That’s when she just focused on one thing.
“I started selling food. I’d Bar-B-Q sandwiches. I’d Bar-B-Q ribs. I just began to cook and boy it went like crazy, everybody wanted it. So, I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Along the bar are the friendly folks of Pawhuska where I find Bonnie Jones who says it’s her favorite place to eat.
“Why, what brings you in here?” I ask. “Sally’s chocolate pie,” comes the answer. Sally’s patrons also recommend the stew, cheeseburgers and chili.
The chili actually goes way back with Sally. She started working at the age of 13 for just $5 a week. The chili recipe came to her from a woman she worked with about 80 years ago.
“She went to the doctor and found out she had a slight heart attack and so she then began to plan. She said I want you to learn to make my chili, but I want you to promise not to tell anybody.”
And, except for Sally’s daughter, no one else knows the secret recipe.
Her daughter and son have since moved on to other jobs, and Sally’s husband died 12 years ago which forced her to just stay open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Friday.
And, having never learned to drive she’s dependent on a couple of guys to take her to and from the café. It’s that perseverance which most impresses Scott Lohah who’s quietly enjoying his stew and mac and cheese.
“That’s a long time there’s not too many folks who works in one place over 20, 30, or 40 years much less 60 years.”
When all the seats at the counter are full up front, there are a few tables in back for overflow customers. That’s where I find Louis Gray and his wife waiting on their food. Louis says Sally has always made him feel welcome over the decades he’s been coming to see her.
“She fed me when I was a little boy, and I’m a great grandfather now. So, all my kids were raised in here. Parents, my grandfather, working on around nine generations of people who have eaten with sally.”
Recalling the time his mother died and Sally brought him an apple pie, he says he feels like a family member rather than a customer.
I return to the counter to enjoy what has to be one of the best chocolate pies I’ve ever tasted. That’s when I ask her, at 96-year-old, if she has any plans to retire.
“No, I love it. That’s why I’m still here. I love this kind of work. I’ve always done it. I don’t intend to retire. You know why, because, you know, i just want something to do. I don’t want to stay home and gripe like everybody else.”
Despite that, Sally does say if the right couple comes along who is willing to keep up its traditions she might be willing to give the diner up to them. Because she says she’s not sure she wants to still be doing this when she turns 100.