Rivers Avenue steakhouse institution Breck’s prides itself on hospitality and homemade food

As daily diners at Breck’s, Sonia Hanchard (center) and Sharon Hill have an easy relationship with the staff, including manager Sheila Saunders. The restaurant has been home-away-from-home to diners in North Charleston since 1961. Wade Spees/staff

It wasn’t a secret that things were shaky at Breck’s Steakhouse in early 2012. Its owners, anxious to get on with retirement to Florida, had already shut down a secondary Summerville location and left their adult daughter in charge of the flagship restaurant in a Rivers Avenue strip mall. Servers who had worked at Breck’s for decades hushedly fretted about new hires and scrambled to pay the restaurant’s bills when delivery guys arrived with pork chops and salad greens.

“I’d pull all of the money out of the ATM,” recalls Sheila Saunders, who was promoted to manager within six months of being hired back in 1996. When she still came up short, “we would take our checks and cash them.”

Before long, even customers began to suspect that the 51-year-old institution was on the brink of flaming out. After Saunders and her husband passed up the chance to buy Breck’s, it sat dark for about a month. Then Saunders got a call: Friends of the owners had agreed to step in. Breck’s was back.

Troy Dion had been a Breck’s customer since 1992, when he was stationed at Charleston Air Force Base. “The first place I went to eat here was Breck’s,” he says. Still, he wondered if the women who had waited on him would accept him and his wife, Wendi, as their bosses. And once he arrived at Breck’s for his first day as owner, he had to figure out why they were all on their cell phones.

“We were calling all of our customers,” explains Saunders, who’s customized her monogrammed Breck’s T-shirt with little lace sleeve extensions. (At Breck’s, it’s pretty common for servers and regulars to text each other about their troubles and vacation plans that take them away from the restaurant.) “It took a while to get people back in.”

Even now, the restaurant hears from people who claim they read on Facebook that Breck’s is no more: A “closed” sign posted on a restaurant’s front door for a few weeks spawns more damaging rumors than a clutch of server’s address books can erase.

But anyone who visits the restaurant is immediately persuaded of its vibrancy. A case in point is Wing Night, when the entire Charleston Southern University football team wedges itself into wooden booths, and other diners hover above taken tables, hoping occupants will quickly gnaw their 40-cent chicken parts and go. In an area fixated on new restaurants and their high-minded concepts, one of the very oldest is nightly demonstrating the enduring value of home cooking and hospitality.

When John Breckenridge retired from the Navy Yard and opened Breck’s in 1961, he didn’t have any greater ambitions than pouring drinks for fellow servicemen. Breck’s could get rowdy: At one point, a bartender was injured in a holdup attempt because the gun he kept stashed in his cash drawer misfired. But once Breckenridge’s wife, Catherine, suggested serving food, it also became known as a good place to get a burger.

Breck’s moved to its current site in 1986, a few years before Hurricane Hugo whisked the roof off the first Breck’s. Now, the restaurant is surrounded by stores offering payday loans, work boots and cheap auto insurance. Breck’s unfurls over three interconnected storefronts near the mall’s middle, with a ragtag bar in the far right room and a dining area to the left, its walls covered in bricks hauled from a rubble pile on Rutledge Avenue. A sectioned-off portion of the storefront that briefly functioned as an ice cream counter is now a private party space, available for free. Not too long ago, a couple was married there.

The Breckenridges brought along a few mementos when they relocated, including a sign that warns visitors, “What you do here/ what you see here/ what you hear here/ leave here!” (It’s warmly signed, “Thanks, Breck’s.”) The sign hangs alongside John Wayne portraits; newspaper clippings, including a 1992 review that admiringly describes Breck’s as “caught in a time warp”; beer memorabilia; fan letters; and a sampler reading, “Love your enemies: You made them.” Dion jokes that the restaurant looks like a garage sale.

Not to Sonia Hanchard, though. She and her friend Sharon Hill, who also works at the North Charleston Housing Authority, end up at Breck’s almost every day. That’s not unusual at Breck’s. Dion says he can name four people who eat at the restaurant on a daily basis, and that’s not counting the couple from London who stayed at a North Charleston hotel for Spoleto and returned to Breck’s each night.

“I would say probably easily 60 percent of the people that eat here, eat here at least twice a week. And have been doing so forever.”

Hanchard started coming to Breck’s five years ago. She’s brokenhearted when she misses a chance to visit, like on the recent Tuesday when Hill failed to invite her for the fried chicken special. Hanchard called Saunders, who she long ago nicknamed “Aunt Sam,” to talk about her hurt feelings; Saunders told her to come by for a drink.

“I don’t know what I drink,” Hanchard says, rattling her standard bronze-hued cocktail on the rocks. “I don’t even ask because I don’t care. I was so stressed out one day, I said, ‘Aunt Sam, make me something strong.’” Saunders mixed that secret drink again and again when Hanchard’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“They were just so supportive,” Hanchard says. “It makes you feel you have a place you can come to. Breck’s is a family to me.”

Hill nods along. “I love this. I love this.”

John Kostaneski has been a Breck’s regular for more than twice as long as Hanchard and Hill. He’d never heard of the place when he was invited to a birthday party there on May 1, 2000. Now, his wife’s pictures of flowers and trees hang on the walls. They’re not for sale: Cheryl Kostaneski just wanted to spruce up the room, the way anyone might decorate the space where they eat most of their meals.

“I like the food, to be honest,” Kostaneski says. “You get a good portion.”

A retired postal worker, Kostaneski once carried a Breck’s takeout meal in his mail truck to Charlotte. Maybe his co-workers were swayed by the aroma of the food, or all of the nice things that Kostaneski had to say about it, but “before you know it, I was getting three or four orders.”

Beyond their affection for Breck’s, Hanchard and Kosteneski outwardly share absolutely nothing. She’s black, he’s white. She’s mighty, he’s slight. She’s young enough to work, and he’s old enough that he doesn’t have to.

“If you could just come to Breck’s and open the door, you’ve got doctors, lawyers, cops, working guys, whatever,” Dion says. “Everybody just kind of gets along here. My thing is, I don’t care if you’re purple, black or polka-dotted: As long as your money’s green, I’ll take care of you, you know?”

Dion is 46, with a sparkling clean sense of humor and tendency to rail on Facebook about sales tax rates. He’s crazy about his job, which marks his return to the restaurant business after a military career-long absence.

Growing up in Maine, Dion frequently needed ski money, so his brother hooked him up with a bussing gig at a seafood restaurant. He got antsy a few years later. “I just decided ... I don’t want to boil lobsters until I’m 60 years old.” But the economy was sputtering in 1991. He ended up as a janitor at a car dealership, and soon after signed on with the Air Force.

“As soon as I was eligible to retire, I retired,” he says. “I really wanted to teach school, teach people how to write effectively. That was my big thing in the military. I didn’t have kids, so this is what I’ve got to pass on. I wanted to get my teaching certificate and teach for a few years.”

On the day that Dion went to register for classes at The Citadel, Steve and Karen Sedor asked him to buy Breck’s. Catherine Breckenridge, who outlived her husband and didn’t have any children, had sold it to them in 1991.

“Karen and Steve didn’t know jack about cooking or restaurants or whatever,” Dion says of his friends, whom he first met when his best friend bought their house (Dion ended up moving in and marrying the woman who lived next door.) “So I always kind of made fun of them and said, ‘When I get out of the service, I’ll run the restaurant and make money for you.’”

The Sedors held him to his threat. They gave him a few hours to decide.

“The reason they came to us is most of the employees have been here for years,” Dion says. “When I worked for a small regional chain, they would buy places like this, and they’d get rid of everybody, because you don’t want to inherit somebody else’s issues. But you know, Miz Betty, she’s been with us for 40 years. So it was important to Karen and Steve that it stayed open. And we ate here three times a week, so it was important to us that everybody stayed.”

“The first day, me and him got along well,” says Betty A. Felder, who in 1976 heard that Breck’s was hiring. She’d learned to cook by raising her daughter, but now confines her cooking to Breck’s. She works six days a week, including double shifts on Fridays and Saturdays. Felder says that’s how she likes it. When she recently took a few days off for a birthday cruise, she texted Dion to say she’d be coming back to work before her vacation was up.

Felder doesn’t like sharing recipes for her alfredo sauce, or standing on rubber kitchen mats that are supposed to alleviate leg pressure, or workplace drama. “I don’t pay no attention to that,” she says. “We had so many come and go. The only way you can make it is being squared up.”

When Felder is working the line with Saunder’s son Larry Easterling, the kitchen is quiet, except for the occasional peal of a brass unicorn bell that they ring to signal when an order’s ready. It’s the latest in a long line of bells: “Waitresses will hide them when they get tired of them,” Loretta Simmons says with a laugh. She has been cooking at Breck’s for 15 years.

“With me and Betty, it’s almost telepathic, I guess,” Easterling says. “Carrabba’s, Olive Garden, I’ve worked in all of them. The camaraderie here is not like nowhere else.”

Almost on cue, Dion comes into the kitchen. “Everybody happy?” he asks. There’s no doubt he’s sincere.

“I put him on a pedestal, honest to God,” server Joni Litchfield says. “He’s not like any person I’ve ever worked for: He’s the most extraordinary man I’ve ever worked for.”

Litchfield is 54 years old. She has a smile for every customer, especially the littlest ones. “You are so darn cute!” she tells one boy, seeming very impressed that it takes two hands for him to communicate his age. Litchfield earns about $40 a shift at Breck’s, or approximately $100 less than she earned at her last job.

But at that job, she had 16 tables in her section and the stress that comes from dealing with people who didn’t know her name. “They think you’re their child or their mom,” she says. “It was just wearing me down.” Breck’s, by contrast, “is just a good place. I love it here. I really do.”

“I think I have a face that says ‘tell me your problems’,” says Kathy Vereen, a server. Vereen used to work in dry cleaning, which meant she could discourage soul spilling by reminding customers that she wasn’t a bartender. That’s a harder line to pull off when she’s delivering a pair of $1 Natural Light cans to a table. Instead, she just listens.

What she likes about the Dions is they listen, too. “I’ve never had owners treat me this way,” she says. “They are family people. When my sister got diagnosed with cancer, Troy told me I could wear my phone on me. This was my safe haven. We like family.”

Using a cell phone at work is a blatant violation of rule number seven on Dion’s list of 10 worker policies, which also cover smoking, schedule requests and chicken wings (employees aren’t supposed to help themselves to unsold food.) Employees tease Dion about spending an hour interviewing a prospective dishwasher.

The disadvantage of Dion being a stickler for details is that he notices everything that needs upgrading. He and Wendi went downtown for his birthday, and he kept getting distracted by the matched restaurant chairs and shiny light sconces.

“God, I wish I could afford those kinds of fixtures,” he says. “But you know for what I charge, I can’t afford it. So my thing is that everything works, and as long as it’s clean, that’s the big thing.”

Because the Dions paid cash for Breck’s, they didn’t have a lot of money left to plow into structural improvements. But they spent what was required to bring the restaurant up to code. “All of the kitchen equipment was in pretty bad shape, and some of it was safety issues, like leaking gas and things like that,” Dion says. “So I replaced everything in the kitchen, and that’s something that people don’t see.”

Other changes were more visible. “We got back to doing everything homemade, as much as humanly possible. Over the last few years, they were buying things in. A lot of people do that because it’s easier. But you know my thing is if we’re going to be a mom-and-pop, we’re going to be a mom-and-pop. We make mashed potatoes by hand. We peel potatoes, we boil potatoes; we mash potatoes. We don’t buy bags of gravy.”

Felder went back to making carrot cake, which she quit doing years ago after she spotted the then-owners eating what she’d baked. Litchfield makes the banana pudding cake, the strawberry cake and double-fudge Coca Cola cake. Dion pays the women for each cake they provide. “It helps me out,” says Litchfield, who’s supporting a disabled husband.

Amazingly, the return to homemade food was slightly controversial. “The reason people buy stuff is it’s consistent every time,” Dion says. “It’s exactly the same. Us, it depends on who it is sometimes. Sometimes the mashed potatoes are a little lumpier than others.”

Generally, Dion doesn’t mind complaints. He likes having the chance to explain his thinking: He describes himself as “philosophical.” If guests aren’t in the dining room to hear his spiel, he’ll post it on Facebook. And when he’s sure complaints are coming, he’ll try to proactively address them by sliding letters into menus, such as the one which began, “Dear Guest: Starting on Nov. 1, we will no longer include a dinner salad in the price of our meals. One of our core principles is treating our guests like family, and part of that is telling you what we are doing, and more importantly, why.” Other letters touched on the price of cheeseburgers, beer and spaghetti.

How’d that go over? “They grabbed the torches and the pitchforks. I mean seriously. People were just like ‘rrrrraaahhhrr.’ It was grab the torches and the pitchforks and burn the new guy off.”

If any dish at Breck’s qualifies as legendary, it’s the 50-ounce sirloin-for-two, served on weekends. “On the weekend, we give out a lot of (to-go) boxes,” Litchfield says. But for longtime customers, the size of the serving didn’t matter: They were outraged that Dion wanted them to pay more than $21.95 for the plate. Since 1990, the sirloin’s price had only gone up by $2. Allowing for inflation, beef prices and labor costs, Dion reset the price to $29.95 — and had to persuade customers that Breck’s doesn’t keep its own cattle.

“We took pretty much every penny we had to buy the restaurant, so we’re not making money,” Dion says. “I tell people, I’m a hell of a nice guy, but I’m not a nonprofit organization.”

When Dion took over the restaurant, the daily lunch special was priced at $4.75. A good number of customers were in the habit of ordering the special and a glass of water, and then leaving a $5 bill on the table. Now, a plate of red rice and sausage or country fried steak is $8, even though regulars warned Dion that he’d lose customers by charging more. He reasoned he’d lose customers who were costing him money.

Yet the backlash was a light breeze compared with the reaction to Dion changing the restaurant’s smoking policy. In 2012, Breck’s was one of the last places where customers were asked “smoking or non?” when looking for a seat. About a year in to his tenure, Dion ruled that smoking would be restricted to the bar.

“Those people, there weren’t enough to keep us in business, but they were still significant. They voted with their feet, and it almost broke us.”

It was also hard on the servers, who voted to start pooling tips. They still do.

“My co-workers, they’re great,” Litchfield says. “The majority of them. I’m not going to say all of them, because that’s not true and I don’t lie.”

Greg Epperson and Steve Murray keep coming to Breck’s partly because they can smoke in the bar. “And where else can you go that you can get liver and onions?” asks Murray. “Some of the best burgers in the world,” adds Epperson, who sold Breck’s its grill.

It makes Dion happy to see people so comfortable at Breck’s. He knows his regulars wouldn’t get the same treatment downtown, because he’s been with Wendi at big-name restaurants when someone in their party has asked to see the Restaurant Week menu or ordered a shot of Fireball.

“The guy was like ‘We don’t serve Fireball,’ just really kind of down his nose,” Dion says. “There are other ways to say we don’t carry that. Because I’m like, really, dude? You don’t own the restaurant.”

Breck’s is unique: No downtown restaurant keeps a cooler stocked with moon pies and homemade blue cheese dressing for sale, just as there isn’t a downtown restaurant where the manager yearly makes a pineapple upside-down birthday cake for a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who sits at the corner of the bar. But Dion feels like he has a good sense of the Charleston food-and-beverage scene that gets written up in magazines, and sometimes it galls him.

“I’m not really part of the Charleston food mafia, which is fine with me, but it’s like you guys are trying to do something that I have. The only difference between you and me is I don’t have a beard, and I’m up here in no man’s land,” Dion says. “Nobody’s coming to Rivers Avenue. I’d love to be one of those places on King Street: They’re killing it. But we’re ... near recession-proof. In five years, I’m going to be here.”