What do 14 million tourists look like? Sit at Peaches Corner on Ocean Boulevard for a day, and you'll see a slice of the millions of annual visitors who keep the Grand Strand's $6.5 billion tourism industry ticking.
On July 23, at the peak of the tourist season, visitors stopping by the diner at Ocean Boulevard and Ninth Avenue North shared their stories, starting at sunrise before Peaches opened its doors and continuing through the bar crowd after it closed.
Tourists may come to the Strand for surf and sun, but for many it goes beyond the beach to the deep-rooted tradition of an annual visit. After more than 70 years in business, Peaches has become a tradition of its own for many. A regular at the diner is a tourist who visits once a year, every year, and there are a lot of regulars.
From a couple showing off their gastric bypass surgeries to a reality TV wannabe, it was a day of history and nostalgia, change and sorrow, romance and hope. And - not to mention - many a signature foot-long hot dog.
8:50 a.m. A history lesson
In 1939, two years after the restaurant opened, a week's pay for a server at Peaches Corner was $12.50, two beers and a hot dog, according to old-timers.
More than 70 years later, manager Briggs Dickerson is part of that same tradition, although he's much better paid. Elbow-deep in grease while cleaning the deep fryers before the before the restaurant opens, Dickerson discussed the history of Peaches Corner.
The building that's now home to Peaches started as The Atlantic Ale restaurant, Dickerson said, and he's seen post cards dating back to 1919. Dickerson's grandmother-in-law, Eunice Burroughs Singleton, bought the restaurant from the Peach family in 1943 when it was still open 24 hours a day. The restaurant is steeped in history, not all of it verifiable.
"I've heard stories of guys that were stationed over at the Air Force base when it was still active, and this is dating back to the '50s and '60s, that if you were in the military and you came over - I guess this was just a known thing - and ordered a plain hamburger, whoever you ordered it from or the cook or whatever would put a $5 bill or a couple of dollars in the burger to get you where you needed to go, so to say, you know enough money for a cab," Dickerson said.
When Dickerson decided to marry into the family in 1997, Singleton sat him down to ask him if he wanted to be part of the family business.
"I took her up on it, and I've just kind of been here ever since," he said.
12:15 p.m. The hot dog nostalgic
Gino Pavlico was weaned on chili dogs. Pavlico's father ran a diner called Frank's Deli for 37 years in Pittston, Pa. On vacation from Exeter, Pa., with his fiancee and her two children, Pavlico visited Peaches at the urging of his brother Joe who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
"He brought us down here because he said these hot dogs taste just like my dad's hot dogs," Pavlico said.
He made quick work of his foot-long dog with all the fixings - chili, mustard and onions - while sitting at the diner's counter. His verdict: close to his father's but not quite the same.
"The chili was very good, similar to my dad's. I just would have rather the yellow mustard than the spicy mustard."
5:45 p.m. Watermelon spitting
The Myrtle Beach watermelon seed spitting contest was a highlight of Mark Hilts' youth. The Horry County native pointed to the open grassy area where The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park used to sit and recounted the 26-foot seed spit that won him a standing Myrtle Beach record.
Now the grandfather brings his grandson, Christian Smith, 8, to Peaches Corner about every two weeks after they check in at the arcade and try to break records for skee ball and other games.
"I love Peaches Corner," Smith said. "I like watching the cars when they get pulled over."
"And watching all the people and the girls walk by," Hilts said, laughing and nudging Smith with his elbow.
8:47 p.m. The next top model
Atreyu Bell stepped gingerly on the pavement making sure not to scuff her blue suede stiletto heels as she approached the outside order window at Peaches Corner. Bell flew to Atlanta from Detroit to meet her long-distance boyfriend, Rob Barry, and come for a romantic weekend to Myrtle Beach.
"These are my lucky shoes. I wore them when I tried out for 'America's Next Top Model,' and there's a song about them, so I had to buy them," Bell said, making her boyfriend smile from beneath his sunglasses.
Neither Bell nor Barry had ever been to the restaurant before last week, but they came back twice during the night. Barry said the couple chose Myrtle Beach for the sun and sand, and Peaches because it sits in the heart of the action on Ocean Boulevard.
9:45 p.m. Every Friday
Almost every Friday night in the summer, Raymond Riddle is a fixture at the counter at Peaches Corner in the late evening. He wanders into the diner, sits at the far end of the counter and orders a beer while he smokes a few cigarettes and watches the tourists walk past the glass windows surrounding the restaurant.
Since the construction market took a downturn, the sheetrock worker has been having a hard time finding work in his field. Riddle treks to Columbia on Mondays and stays there during the work week because it's the closest steady work he's been able to find. He comes home to Myrtle Beach on the weekends and pines for the better times when he could find a job building houses in any one of the major developments that popped up all over Horry County in the past decade.
"It's been hard finding work. No one around here has any right now," Riddle said. "Coming here on the weekends reminds me that I still live in Myrtle Beach. I miss it. It's been home for 15 years."
10:15 p.m. Gastric bypass
Brian Allison has been coming to Peaches Corner from Randleman, N.C., for years. When he and his wife sat at the counter, he stared at the night manager for a minute before starting a conversation with, "I bet you don't remember me."
The staff and managers, several of whom come back every season, often remember the customers that come in once or twice a year, at least by face. But they shook their head, "no" at Allison.
"This used to be me," he said, holding up an old driver's license with a picture of himself weighing 275 pounds more than he does today. "I had gastric bypass surgery two years ago, and I'm feeling a lot better."
Allison recounted how he used to sit down and order two cheeseburgers, a foot-long hot dog, corn dog and fries whenever he'd come in. This year, with his newfound health and his wife, who also had a gastric bypass around the same time, the man who once weighed almost 450 pounds ordered a cheeseburger and two plates to split it with his wife.
10:42 p.m. In his memory
Jason Napier's family history is tied to Peaches Corner even though he grew up hundreds of miles away in Richmond, Ky. Napier grew up hearing about his father's first trip outside of their landlocked home state to the vast ocean and the little restaurant on the corner of the Boulevard with the foot-long hot dogs. He started taking his family every year to Myrtle Beach, and Peaches Corner held a special place for father and son.
"As soon as I was old enough my dad started bringing me," Napier said. "We had to come every year. We made sure to get here and have a hamburger. It was our thing."
Napier's father died two years ago, and this is the first year since then he's been able to make it back for the tradition. On the last day of his trip to Myrtle Beach, Napier and his wife tried to get a seat twice, circling the block and the new boardwalk until two stools at the counter opened up.
"It was that important to me," he said.
1:14 a.m. | A foot-long is born
After cook Paul Schroeder made his last foot-long hot dog of the night, he explained how the quintessential Myrtle Beach delicacy is made:
Step 1 | Fry it
From the refrigerator into the deep fryer, the staff first dips the hot dog in boiling grease for 30 to 40 seconds.
Step 2 | Grill it
The cook then throws it on the grill, placing an iron to press it into the hot surface. A few minutes on the grill should do it, although Schroeder says his internal clock tells him when to take it off.
Step 3 | Add Chili
For a true Coney Island-style dog, Peaches adds chili. The diner uses a recipe that manager Briggs Dickerson says is more than 55 years old.
Step 4 | Mustard and diced onions
Peaches uses spicy mustard but elsewhere some swear by yellow mustard.
Extra Credit | Slaw
For a true gut buster, add cole slaw to all of the above.