Featured photo: Piedmont Aviation Snack Bar has existed at Smith-Reynolds Airport for decades. (photo by Jerry Cooper)
At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the smell of stale and salty baked pretzels, occasionally topped with pepperoni or covered in a cinnamon-sugar mix that’s sure to cause a pre-flight high, assaults the nose of every passenger who checks in through the C concourse security line. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport’s cuisine is marked by a cheesy caramel blend that accosts each terminal with the buttery scent of popcorn, leaving travelers wondering if they’re on their way to Paris or rushing through a movie theater to catch a John Hughes film. Boston Logan has its many clam “chowdah” stands, and Austin-Bergstrom International smells like the pit of Salt-Lick’s famous smoked meats. But in Winston-Salem, tucked in an unassuming brick and powdered blue airport hangar across the street from the Smith-Reynolds Airport terminal, the old fashioned smell of hamburgers and deep fried comfort food fills the air. The scent’s origin is a snack bar that has served its community long before the days of trendy travel and foodie culture.
Piedmont Aviation Snack bar is a counter-service restaurant serving Americana breakfast and lunch fast foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, fried tenderloin and bologna sandwiches.
The original food counter opened in 1942, when the Reynold’s family helped finance improvements of the airport facilities, including a terminal with marble walls, windows that overlooked the airfield and a massive chandelier in the lobby. But after running the lunch counter for 37 years, the original owner was ready to retire. Then, in 1988, its new owner, Brian Key, made a handshake deal with the President of Piedmont Airlines. Key’s father was an aircraft salesman, and his uncle’s brother, Ollie Virgil Key, was on the board of the Piedmont Aviation Credit Union.
“We had a long lineage of Piedmont family employees,” Key says. “They knew of my background in food; I went to cooking school for three years and worked in restaurants. He called me one day and said they had a grill up here, wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking over.”
The only stipulation was that Keys had to run the business as the previous owner had, open Monday through Friday, with prices below their competitors.
“I spoke to the president and vice president of Piedmont Airlines’ we shook hands, and that was our deal,” he says.
At the time, Piedmont Airlines had attracted other larger airlines due to its loyal customer base and willingness to serve smaller, hometown cities. In North Carolina alone, Piedmont flew to cities like Hickory, Rocky Mount and Southern Pines.
Less than a year after Keys reopened the snack bar, Piedmont Airlines and its 22,000 employees were acquired and merged with USAir.
“All we had was a handshake,” Key explains. “Every time the airline and airport changed hands, new owners would come in and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ But no one ever said anything about leaving, so we continued on.”
The restaurant stayed open primarily for the benefit of the employees.
“The hangar was full of workers,” Key explains. “You had the airplane sales where dad was. Down the street was USAir and their reservations and heavy-duty maintenance. The credit union was open at the time. And down below that was the training center for the flight attendants. We had more than enough business to keep us afloat.”
Over the years, both the airline industry and Smith Reynolds Airport continued to change. Piedmont Airlines dissolved in 1989 and after 9/11 and the halt of travel, Key wondered how they would survive. Just as the airport began resuming flights, USAir moved out.
Raising three daughters on his own, Key found it difficult to rely on the ebb and flow of the aviation industry. But he remained steadfast with his menu, never changing it and always keeping the prices “at or below the prices at Hardee’s,” he says.
The blue-checkered floors and white, laminate tables where aircraft mechanics, salesmen, stewardesses and jet fuelers gathered for a steak and egg biscuit, also served as a playground for Key’s daughters.
His middle daughter, Kayla Key-Guffey and her fiancé Scott Murray, stepped in as owners two years ago this July.
“I grew up in here,” Key-Guffey says. “My name is on the bottom of every chair in here. We’d hang out with the people in the bank next door, or the airplane parts people in the back of the hangar. I was standing on stools at the register before I could reach them.”
Key-Guffey gained much of her industry experience in restaurants throughout Winston-Salem but she attributes her level of perfectionism to her dad.
“My dad has always been picky,” she says. “He prides himself on perfecting anything. Growing up, I ate meatloaf every day for 10 days until he got it right. Cornbread for 10 days or until he got it right.”
Kayla and Scott both laugh recalling a story of when Scott started working at the snack bar.
“When he was training Scott,” Kayla says, “Scott was making a salad. Dad came over and told him ‘That’s not enough,’ picked up barely a pinch of lettuce and told him, ‘Now it’s right.’ He was dead serious.”
That level of attention to detail exists in every order that crosses over the counter. Nacho cheese is drizzled over perfectly crisp tater tots, each one covered in just enough topping to not be mushy by the time patrons sit down at the tables. Lemonade is squeezed from fresh lemons and paired with the optimum measure of sugar to balance their tartness; it’s the only other drink they sell besides sweetened and unsweetened ice tea, and a soda machine that takes cash near the entrance. Each BLT comes with two tomatoes — tomato always on top of the mayonnaise.
“It matters, those little things matter,” Kayla says, her dad nodding in agreement.
Brian Key now admits to Scott’s talent and speed in the kitchen, impressed by his son-in-law’s “spatulas for hands.”
That speed keeps burgers, hot dogs and Philly cheesesteaks as their top sellers.
“It’s the lowest form of restaurant food, but when it comes down to it, when you’ve had a long day, everybody wants a burger,” says Brian Key.
With Key stepping aside, patrons place their order with either Kayla in the afternoons, or her uncle, James Hansen-Guffey in the mornings. Scott works both shifts on the grill and fryer. The familiar faces add to the comfort and reliability of the menu.
Still, the airline industry remains in flux, and Smith Reynolds Airport is not immune. Recently, a bill was filed in the General Assembly that would deannex the airport from Winston-Salem, another change that Kayla and Scott say, either way, “we’ll be here, still loving what we do.”
Recently, with a growing presence on social media and an influx of customers, Kayla and Scott are hoping to extend hours to be more accessible to those who aren’t able to come throughout the week.
“I’m tired, but I’m excited,” Kayla says. “This is for us, for our kids, but it’s also for my dad. I want him to be proud of everything he did, and what we are doing.”
A reminder of the snackbar as a constant hangs over the exit of the restaurant. “Bye-Bye PI, Final Flight- Aug 4, 1989,” is printed on a T-shirt. It’s a reminder that travel and aviation are in constant change, but some things remain steadfast.
Follow Piedmont Aviation Snack Bar on Facebook or Instagram or check them out at 3820 N Liberty St #3911 in Winston-Salem.
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