Harold's Diner, native-islanders' mart not going anywhere soon

tbarton@islandpacket.comMay 26, 2012 

Diner lovers, don't despair. Your beloved mid-island eatery isn't going anywhere.

At least, not anytime soon.

Nor is the adjacent convenience store owned by a prominent native-island family.

Harold's Diner owner Chuck Hyatt said he and several loyal patrons of the cozy, no-frills, take-no-guff eatery were shocked to learn Town of Hilton Head Island officials might buy the restaurant, part of plans for a park linking Shelter Cove and the beach.

The Town Council chose the park as one of its priorities for the year, and Mayor Drew Laughlin has urged the town to get started. Earlier this month, the Public Facilities Committee unanimously recommended the council endorse a rough plan for the mile-and-a-half-long park.

Beside Harold's, native islander Moses Grant and his family have been running Grant's Mini Mart since 1981. The family has lived on Hilton Head for seven generations -- a history that dates to escaped slaves.

Grant said the family has no intention of selling the property. In fact, they're considering putting in a new gas station and new retail space -- perhaps a new restaurant, he said.

Town manager Steve Riley says no decisions have been made on buying the property, which is why the owners weren't consulted before a rough layout of the park was presented to council members.

"It's a bunch of ideas to talk about," Riley said. "Some will come to fruition, and some never will. We'll see what sticks. ... If it goes anywhere, the time for talk will be later. This is not a plan we're rushing to implement."

The town has assembled most of the property for the park. Harold's, the mini mart, a nearby home and vacant land would be needed if the plan presented is followed. The property would be used to reconfigure William Hilton Parkway into a traffic circle to slow motorists and provide turn-ins to the park, and accommodate a pedestrian bridge across the parkway at Singleton Beach Road, according to a town drawing.

If the concept is approved, the town would refine the plan and solicit comments from the public and town commissions, Riley said.

Hyatt said his diner is an "island landmark" and refused further comment.

Harold Smalls opened the eatery in 1974 at the corner of William Hilton Parkway and Singleton Beach Road. Smalls died several years ago, but his name and legacy remain with the diner. Hyatt bought the business in 2001.

The restaurant has garnered loyalty over the years from longtime residents and vacationers, including Glenda Turner. She and her husband stop at the diner at least once a year during their pilgrimage to the island from Knoxville, Tenn. They've been vacationing on Hilton Head for 33 years.

Turner said she and her husband prefer to eat at local, family-owned restaurants and were drawn by Harold's inexpensive, "down-home" fare and atmosphere.

The food is good. The diner is laid-back. And it's cheap, Turner said. Others say they enjoy Harold's abrasive charm, where brusque service and crass humor are part of the eating experience.

Its motto: "Eat here or we both starve."

The rules: Sit, fill out your order, pay attention, eat, pay, exit. Cash only. When you're done eating, leave because "this ain't Starbucks."

As for Grant's Mini Mart, its owners don't want to sell.

Moses Grant and his brother, Joseph, expressed their concerns to Town Council and the town's Planning Commission earlier this month. They say the planned traffic circle is unnecessary and unsafe.

Aside from displacing well-established island businesses, it would create dangerous traffic backups, Moses Grant said.

A simpler, less costly solution would be crosswalks with signals, he said, like the ones the town will install south of the store on William Hilton Parkway as part of its current pathway construction project.

"I have no problem with the park, but when it's going to displace our business, it's unjust and unfair," Grant said. "Hopefully, we can sit down with the town to see how both can survive."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related content:

On Hilton Head, park stretching from beach to creek gets renewed push: May 5, 2012

Hilton Head linear park plans might jump ahead of Coligny redevelopment: May 8, 2012

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