Cooling It Down

Block Number: 66

“Cooling It Down” and “Turning Up The Heat”

by Ginger Todd

It was on a rainy Monday afternoon, November 15th when Mike Lucas installed two new quilt blocks on the McDowell Quilt Trail at 1116 Rutherford Road. Bantam Chef restaurant owner Tony Panou is host of “Cooling It Down” and “Turning Up The Heat,” each representative of both the fast food restaurant and his personal hobbies. A separate Certificate of Authenticity for each block was presented by Jill Lucas.

From his early childhood, Tony grew up in the restaurant business. His father, now in his late seventies and still in the business, has owned as many as eight restaurants over the years in Charlotte, N.C. Tony remembers starting out as a young boy around the age of 12, doing everything from washing dishes, taking out the garbage, cleaning tables, and eventually cooking. He recalls his father saying that the business could be taught “on site, learning from the back door to the front door” and that “culinary college was not necessary to be a good short-order cook.”

Mr. Panou has owned Bantam Chef since the year 2000, the trade name no longer in the original franchise, which began to break up in the 1980’s. He has worked 26 years as a short-order cook and continues to this day working side by side with his employees.

He says the quilt block on Spencer’s Hardware first caught his attention as he came in to work each day. He then began to notice others around the county and thought they added charm, and became interested in their origin. Curious, he spoke with Nancy Spencer about how to participate in the quilt trail, and she put him in touch with MACA and the quilt trail personnel, who then worked with him in developing his themes.

The design of one of the blocks began with Tony’s childhood memories of the old green-topped glass Coca-Cola bottle and its famous “secret formula.” Eventually, he was led to collecting all sorts of bottles, including milk, whiskey, pharmacy, and soda. After moving to McDowell County, being very interested in history (even to the extent of participating in war reenactments), he discovered that a Coca-Cola bottling plant had once had a home here.

Upon investigation, he found that the first plant had been located on Railroad Street from 1916-1924 across the way from the “Railroad Office” (train depot), where the building, now occupied by Marion Tire, sits. The plant was later moved to East Court Street, and eventually closed in the 1970s.

In the “olden days” the name of the city and the numerical number of how many of that particular bottle were manufactured was embossed on the bottom of the bottle. Similarly, the name of the dairy farmer producing the product was to be found on the underside of glass milk bottles. Tony focused his hobby on those Coca-Cola bottles manufactured in McDowell, and is now searching for a particular one marked “Old Fort” on the bottom to add to his collection.

“Cooling It Down,” block number 66 on the McDowell Quilt Trail, represents those Coca-Cola bottles. It hangs on the building on the side of the restaurant where the sodas are served, and can be seen by travelers heading into Marion on Highway 221/226. The block has four smaller bottles in a cross fashion in each corner panel, with four larger ones in the middle, a total of 20 representations of the popular drink. The bottles are done in black, adorned with the green top, spotlighted by a yellow square in the middle. The tips of the corners are squared off with blue, smaller red and blue squares accenting the other three quadrants of each panel on a white background.

Block number 67, “Turning Up the Heat” may be seen on the opposite side of the building as you travel south on Highway 221/226, the side where the restaurant’s grilling takes place. This block represents another of Tony’s hobbies, the collecting of cast iron skillets. As a young boy growing up in the restaurant business, he often played with pots and pans as toys. Later, his interest in the unique quality of cooking with cast iron became another area of special interest. “Back in the day” cast iron was widely used for cooking, the older and more “seasoned” the skillet, the better. Virtually all the frying was done in cast iron skillets, now replaced by the more modern deep fryers and griddles.

Griswold skillets were of the highest quality, and the most well known producer of cast iron skillets, being easily recognized by the use of “black iron.” Each Griswold skillet had a distinctive trademark on the back and a number indicating the size. Original Griswold skillets were produced from 1865 through the late 1950s, at which time the Erie, Pennsylvania Company was sold. Any skillets produced since then are considered reproductions and not necessarily deemed “collectible.” To this day, cast iron has stood the test of time and remains a quite functional way of cooking. With a little cleaning, proper seasoning and care, even the oldest piece can be restored and enjoyed without worry of damage.

“Turning Up the Heat” consists of twelve skillets in two shades of grey on a cream background. Six of the skillets in the lighter grey contain a black center, the cooking portion facing up. The other six in a darker grey are facing down (bottom up), with a white cross inside a black circle, representative of one of the original Griswold trademarks. If one looks closely you can also visualize another eight skillets, for a total of 20 skillets on the block. Each side of the block depicts two maroon skillets from a side view and handles pointing towards the corners of the block, highlighted in yellow.

Bantam Chef is well known for its menu consisting of a wide variety of fresh made “short-order” meals, however they also sponsor a notable recycling program.

The business benefits the community in that it collects aluminum cans from individuals and companies, regardless of how many, which they recycle, along with their own. By recycling the cans, refuse is put to use for other useful products, reducing the clutter in our landfill. Not only that, but 100% of the recycling revenue goes to a charity organization. Last year $3,000 was presented to Hospice of McDowell County, and again this year Hospice will be the recipient. Their program runs from July 4th to July 4th each year, at which time the employees vote on an organization within McDowell County to benefit from their efforts.

Bantam Chef proudly displays its two quilt blocks and is honored to be a part of McDowell County’s history, as well as having a role in addressing environmental issues by recycling and donating the proceeds to local noteworthy causes.

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