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  • Writer's pictureFNBC

Legendary Beaufort sandwich shop boasts an unusual business model

BEAUFORT — Marie Lewis, who’s operated the cash register at Alvin Ord’s sandwich shop for nearly 40 years, has a feel for which customers she can mess with. 

The foul-mouthed recruits who come in from Parris Island, for example. 

“You’ll get Marines in here that are using barracks talk,” said Marie, 69, who has a chiseled face and a voice that is clear and strong. “And I have said, ‘You are not in the barracks. There’s families here.’" 

"So all of a sudden … ‘Yes, ma’am,’” said her husband, Tom Lewis, 72, mimicking a young man straightening his spine.  

Marie also messed with the customer who inquired if she and Tom, who have the habit of telling the same story at the same time, were married.

Marie whirled around and pretended to confront her husband. “You’re married?!” she said. 

It’s partly these family-like interactions that keep the tiny shop at 1415 Ribault Road so popular. But it’s also the fact that Alvin Ord’s is just the way it has been since the early 1980s. 

The Beaufort Alvin Ord’s is about a five-minute drive from downtown Beaufort. The Lewises have a licensing agreement with shops in Bluffton, Charleston, Ohio and California. They operate independently from Alvin Ord’s shops in Texas. But all the locations share a namesake: Alvin Ord Johnston, who started a sandwich shop in 1971 but left the business to become a monk. Provided

A baker still comes before dawn to make the bread. The roast beef is still made from scratch. The turkey still tastes like Thanksgiving, and the costs have stayed as low as the Lewises can possibly keep them.

Even the same employees are still there — one man has worked at Alvin Ord’s for 33 years, and “the girls,” as Tom and Marie refer to the middle-aged women behind the counter, for decades. 

And every year, thousands of police officers, nurses, teachers and Marines pass through the shop during their tour in Beaufort.

“What makes my heart just sing is when they come back,” said Marie. “They will say, ‘I haven’t been here in 10 years, I haven’t been here 20 years. And it tastes the same.’”

Aside from a couple of chains, not many places can make that claim, Marie noted proudly. 

Given the reliability of Alvin Ord’s, no wonder customers noticed when Marie disappeared from behind the register.

Bad news

In the short period of her life before she owned and operated Alvin Ord’s, Marie earned a degree in physical education. She also rides horses, and she walks every day with a childhood friend. All this is to say, she’s a robust person, not in the habit of complaining about everyday discomfort.

“Who doesn’t have backaches?” she said.

But in the late spring of 2021, the pain between her shoulder blades felt excruciating. 

So she visited another friend, an orthopedic surgeon, who took an X-ray and found three broken vertebrae. 

That seemed bad enough. But the orthopedist suspected the broken bones to be a symptom of a worse problem.

“The light bulb’s coming on to him,” Marie said.

He sent her to a radiologist, who did an MRI that confirmed the orthopedist’s fear: multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that can make the spine soft.

“It looked like gobbledygook on my bones,” Marie said. 

Over the next months, she would temporarily lose control of her legs, undergo emergency surgery, have radiation, get chemo, and receive a stem cell transplant. 

‘You never know’ 

Meanwhile, the shop also experienced something unusual: disgruntled customers. A few made negative comments. 

They were irritated that the operation wasn’t running as smoothly as they were used to. After all, even during the darkest days of the pandemic, Alvin Ord’s had kept humming. Determined not to run out of food, Tom and Marie stockpiled supplies in their church’s refrigerators. And while most businesses had lurched along, Alvin Ord’s confidently planned weeks in advance. 

But Marie’s absence was throwing off the rhythm. She was, in a word, irreplaceable. 

The Lewises’ son, a veterinarian who manages the restaurant’s Facebook page, asked if he could announce the reason on social media.

The vulnerable position was an odd one for the family. Most of the time, they were the ones offering comfort.

During the first Gulf War, the Lewises had “God Bless America,” a yellow ribbon and a flag painted on the windows. Two Scud missiles were accidentally washed off. Kelly Jean Kelly/Staff

Tom spoke about the sandwiches the shop had sent to Iraq over the Fourth of July as a surprise for homesick Marines. “Literally, we would start at midnight,” he said, indicating how long it takes to bake bread for 150 large sandwiches. (A large is big enough for four regular people, or one Marine, the couple clarified.)

Marie remembered a teenager who presented himself at the counter with a 20-dollar bill, not quite enough for what he wanted to order. She not only fronted him the money, but gave him change.

Five minutes later he returned, asking for a cup of water. Marie messed with him, demanding at least a quarter. The young man coughed it up and then, guilelessly, asked for a second cup for his brother. 

Marie rolled her eyes, but she gave it to him.

“You never know,” Marie said.

“I was just getting ready to say that,” Tom said. 

“You never know” is their shorthand for the idea that one never knows who is an angel, or Jesus presenting himself as a person in need, waiting to see what others will do. 

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The phrase comes from an episode in the early days of their business, when a homeless man kept coming to the shop, saying, “Can I have a sandwich? I’m hungry." 

Tom said his inclination was to shoo the man away. But a good friend took Tom aside and counseled otherwise. "You never know,” the friend said.

“It’s always stuck in the back of my mind,” said Tom. “It’s part of being a community. And we try our best to help the community without …”

“… putting us out there …” finished Marie.

“… putting us out there,” agreed Tom.

“Without saying, ‘This is what Alvin Ord’s does,’” continued Marie.

“We just do it,” concluded Tom. “Because it’s the right thing to do. We love our community, we really love it.”

Kindness and patience

In the end, the family decided to go public with Marie’s condition. 

They were clear about what they wanted. “We are not letting you know to ask for donations, nor to ask for sympathy,” the Facebook post said. “We are letting you know to ask for kindness and patience while we deal with this setback.”

Still, they were blown away by the responses.

“It was prayers. It was blessings. It was, ‘I hope you hope you get better soon,’” Marie said.

Most surprising were the number of people the family didn’t recognize. “Ninety-five percent of them were people I didn’t know from Adam’s housecat,” she said.

Marie Lewis works the register during the lunch rush on June 23, 2022. Kelly Jean Kelly/Staff

Strangers also approached Tom around town. “I know about Marie because of Facebook,” they told him. “How’s she doing?”

Or, “I just want to let you know that while you’re not there, the girls are doing a great job.”

Tom shook his head. “That means the world,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Marie insisted she would never come back to the shop. The Facebook post had even advertised for her position. 

Then, in early June, almost exactly a year from her diagnosis, she was sitting at home and got to wondering why. Although her legs still felt off — heavy, like she’d run a marathon — she was mostly doing OK. Multiple myeloma is not curable, but it is treatable, and she was getting treatment. 

“Bottom line, I love this job. I love working with people. I love our girls …” Marie said.

“… and she does a fantastic job,” Tom said. 

On June 7, their son posted another picture of Marie on Facebook, announcing that she’d returned to the register. 

In two hours, 600 people commented. 

“Again, the outpouring of love,” Marie marveled. 

Relief, for now

For the most part, everything is back to normal, just the way it’s been for nearly 40 years.

The only thing Marie struggles with is remembering how to code a special order in the cash register, and special orders are part of what she particularly likes to do. 

“People will say, ‘A veggie sandwich,’ and I’ll go, ‘Do you want vegetarian or do you want vegan?’ Because vegan will have not cheese,” Marie said. These are the kinds of nuances that are lost in online orders, which is one reason the Lewises don’t do them.

Nor do they intend to make the shop bigger — “Because if we expand, we change the dynamics,” said Tom — nor make a plan to retire. 

Since they are in Beaufort at least for a few more years for Marie’s cancer treatments, they will continue as they are — a situation that, in a way, brings relief to everyone.  

“Our employees are more important to us than just about anything else. And our employees are going to have a job no matter what,” Tom said. 

Plaques recognize the Lewises’ many charitable donations. Tom Lewis said, “We don’t have family here. … People in Beaufort are our family. And we try to do as much for them as they do for us.” Kelly Jean Kelly/Staff

The entire portrait — the wood-paneled walls, the plaques recognizing the many donations the Lewises have made to charities, the business model based on generosity — seems almost unreal, the kind of scene politicians conjure to describe bygone American days.

But at Alvin Ord’s, they’re not bygone yet. 

And like their customers, Marie and Tom Lewis are in no hurry to let them go. They’re holding on to what they have, including access to their homemade bread, which is only available to customers who come to the store and wait for their turn at the cash register.

“People want to know, ‘Do you sell your bread?’” Marie said. “Well, no, because then you won’t come in and see me.”

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