Thunderbird Motel sold, but restaurant stays in local hands

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FLORENCE (AP) - One of the most iconic symbols in the Pee Dee area rests in the wings of the neon Thunderbird sign on U.S. 52 in Florence.

Buzz Rogers - the majority shareholder of Motel Associates Inc., which owned the Thunderbird Inn and Restaurant - said the inn has been sold to become a Motel 6, but the restaurant will remain under local leadership in a deal that was made final in mid-January.

Rogers said the restaurant operation will remain unchanged other than some planned renovations and improvements.

"The buyers have been easy to work with and are interested in keeping the iconic image and reputation of the hotel and restaurant intact," Rogers said. "Despite being converted to a Motel 6, the big Thunderbird sign will remain as a landmark for the restaurant, as it has drawn guests off of I-95 for 45 years."

Rogers said he and general manager Larry Norris will continue to maintain the restaurant. Norris has worked at the Thunderbird since 1989.

"We're known up and down from New York to Florida," Norris said. "If anything changed, the perception of who are would change, and we don't want that to happen. We want to let people know that we're still here and we're going to keep doing what we've always done."

Rogers said many of the employees have worked at the Thunderbird for more than 25 years and that his father, Mandeville Rogers, was reluctant to sell in years past because of concerns for them.

In this agreement, the restaurant will be able to keep all 33 of the current employees. Two of those employees include manager Bobby Hyman, who has worked at the Thunderbird for 20 years, and his wife, Jeanette, who has been there for 30 years.

"I am 70 and have no family members to take over the hotel, so thus a sale was the only option," Rogers said. "The structure of this sale achieves my father's desire to take care of the long-term loyal employee and passes on the ownership and operation to a stable and knowledgeable group in the hospitality industry, thus preserving the future of the property."

In close to 30 years of service, Norris said, many celebrities have become regular guests at the Thunderbird.

He has met the likes of Bill Clinton, Denver Pyle, Wesley Snipes, the Alabama guys, Lorrie Morgan, Chubby Checker, Bill Murray, Evander Holyfield, Leonard Bernstein, Vanna White, Jeff Gordon and many other NASCAR drivers, to name a few.

"Many years ago Holyfield was here in Florence speaking at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event at Francis Marion," Norris said. "Afterward, they took him to another restaurant in the area, and, after looking at the menu, he said he wanted some 'soul food.' That's when someone yelled, 'Get back in the bus, we're going to the Thunderbird.'"

The hotel was purchased by a family-owned and -operated group out of Jackson, Mississippi. It is now operating as a Motel 6 with signage and some renovations to come.

Sagar Patel, a member of the buyer group, completed his residency training in Charleston.

"Truth be told, we loved Charleston and all of South Carolina, because the people and values are very similar to those in Mississippi," Patel said. "We are pleased to have our first hotel in South Carolina and are very excited to be part of the Florence community."

The Thunderbird restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day.

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Information from: Morning News, http://www.scnow.com