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Restaurants: A meeting place with a side order of politics

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Amy Valhos wanted one wall in her restaurant, Applewood House of Pancakes in Litchfield, to be painted green. 

“Green encourages roots and community,” she said. “I think it helped.”

Applewood has become the host for a variety of community groups’ luncheon meetings from Sierra Club to the Waccamaw Neck Republican Women’s Club. “Once you start,” Valhos said, “they seem to know you.”

Valhos, mother of four, commutes from her home town of Little River, so getting involved in the Waccamaw Neck community has been no small feat. 

Roger Porter holds a gathering every month at Applewood for prospects of his business, CuraLase.

“The atmosphere, the people, the location,” are the reasons he comes to the restaurant. “Amy is as good as gold,” Porter said, “a real community person.” Porter travels between North Myrtle Beach and Litchfield introducing his product. “This is our favorite place,” he said.

The first political event at Applewood was Gov. Mark Sanford appearing at a dessert and coffee for Ricky Horne’s campaign for the state House. “It caught like wildfire,” Valhos said. “Within two months Mitt Romney needed a place to stop for his ‘Ask Mitt Anything Tour’ and John McCain followed him here.”

Amy and husband Dimitrios — most people call him Jimmy — had a pancake house in Little River when they first married. Three years of working 24/7 convinced Jimmy that he wanted to go back to school. They sold their restaurant but couldn’t get the trade out of their blood. They opened a fish house in Laurinburg, N.C. 

Amy comes from a fishing family. Her father and brother captain fishing trawlers. “I grew up fishing,” she said. “If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was 10, I would have said I was going to be a fisherman.”

Within five years, one seafood restaurant had grown to four with additions in Rockingham, N.C., Florence and Dillon. 

Things changed with the birth of the couple’s third child, Mikhail, who suffers with asthma.

“We realized he did better on the coast,” Amy said. After 11 years in Laurinburg, the family moved back to Little River. They sold three of the four restaurants. Jimmy kept the one in Laurinburg, Captain Larry’s Seafood, and they started looking for a new location for a pancake house. 

“Opening this place,” Amy said, “was my attempt to establish a business closer to home.”

With a 42-mile commute through Myrtle Beach traffic, few would define her job as close to home. 

She views the coast as home. Her roots are deep — she’s kin to the Vereens, Horrys, Hemingways, Thomases and Longs — and she’s a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. 

Amy wanted to come to Litchfield Beach because it was in “dire need” of a business like she envisioned. “We never open anything without eating with the competitors,” Amy said. “We spent many Sunday afternoons riding up here and looking. We considered a former Greek place across from Walgreen’s and an old gas station but couldn’t find the right place.”

Their big break came unexpectedly.

Amy’s oldest son, Nicholas, was waiting tables in North Myrtle Beach and made a favorable impression on customers Jim Bindner and his wife, Cindy. Bindner offered Nicholas a job. “My mom will kill me if I don’t go to college,” Nicholas told him.

Bindner asked the waiter how he learned to be so good with people and found that his parents were looking for a site to open a pancake house in Litchfield. Bindner had just started building a restaurant and office complex at the front of Litchfield Exchange on Highway 17. It was the family’s chance to get in on the ground level. 

Building took longer than expected, and Amy started to waver on her original choice for her restaurant’s name: Strawberry Hill Pancake House. It didn’t have the ring she wanted, and when Jimmy suggested Applewood she loved it.

“When you first open,” Amy said, “you are really hungry for the income.”

Now having time with her children, Nicholas, Alexi, Mikhail and Christianna, is more valuable, she says.

“I’ve gotten away from doing weddings and night meetings,” she said. “My children are just about grown, and I’m trying to spend all the time I can with them.”

It was with her children in mind that Amy agreed to host the retirement dinner for the Rev. Abraham Nelson of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church last month.

“The church wouldn’t give up,” she said. “I put them off two weeks and told them I was trying to get away from things like that. They said they were praying that we would do the dinner. It was very hard to say no.”

Being Greek Orthodox, Amy looked on the Baptist group’s dinner as an educational experience for her children — three of them worked that Saturday night.

“Most churches have a pretty good turnover in ministers,’ Amy said. “Mount Zion has had four ministers in 140 years. That, to me, was amazing. We all can learn something from that. I just became so impressed, the more they came and talked to me.

I thought it would be a unique experience for my children. I knew they would turn it into a service, and they did. It was different from the way we do.”

Applewood’s head chef, Chris Sano, was working in Murrells Inlet when he wanted some extra part-time work. When his full-time employer objected and made him choose he told them, “I’m loving Amy” and said good-bye.

“He’s on the same page with me,” Amy said. “We sit down often and say, ‘How can we improve this? We do a ‘Restaurant Impossible’ situation.”

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Some of the challenges at Applewood have come from Amy’s decision to close off about a third of her dining room space after breaking her shoulder last summer.

“I re-evaluated life,” she said, “and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to carry so much all the time. We didn’t lose a whole lot of tables, and now we do everything we did on one side. That’s why I say, ‘Restaurant Impossible.’ We keep critiquing how long it takes to seat a customer, how long it takes servers to get their food to them. We tried to improve every aspect to where we wouldn’t see much difference.”

When Amy learned that a bus load of customers was planning to stop on a Sunday, she told them that the restaurant had reduced its seating capacity. They stopped anyway. “We worked our normal crowd and made room for the bus group,” she said. “It’s been a mental challenge, but I feel real good about what I’ve done.”

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