Homepage-circlepicWalking into The Happy Café on Forest Drive is a sensory experience. Original paintings line the sea foam green walls (including numbers from an ingenious series called “Philip’s Angels,” but that’s another story), laughter and friendly conversation work their way from the kitchen to the front of the house, and the smells. Ah, the smells. To describe them is not to do them justice.Owner Sue Hodges, her daughter and manager Anne Reynolds, and other members of the kitchen staff emerge one or two at a time to help customers with takeout orders before the lunch crowd arrives. A young man comes in to pick up the café’s famous pulled chicken barbecue on his way to the coast. “My mom comes here a lot,” he says. “We always take barbecue from The Happy Café when we go to the beach.” Another patron, Marie, waits on a takeout order. She swears by the hummus platter and the broccoli salad. “There are lots of burger joints in the area,” says Marie. “It’s nice to have some healthy, fresh options for a change.”

Members of the lunch crowd, like Margaret and Anne (sisters) and Celeste and William (mother and son), have been coming to the café since the beginning, though Anne has quite a distance to travel, living in Charlotte. “It’s worth the drive,” she says with a smile. Local friends Frances and Ethel break bread at the café regularly, something Frances says people don’t do anymore. “It’s a community here,” she adds.

Sue began her culinary career in earnest at Hammond School when her children were students there. After they graduated, she decided to hone her skills further and signed up for night classes at USC’s culinary school. Impressed with her abilities, Sue’s instructors asked her to stay on after finishing to help other students in the program. At this point, however, Sue had set her sights on opening her café inside The Happy Bookseller, which she did in 2003. Five years later, The Happy Bookseller closed, and Sue leased part of the bookstore property to open up The Happy Café as we know it today.

Among the many popular lunch items at The Happy Café is the hormone-free pulled chicken barbecue on a bed of dill-dressed cole slaw topped with sunflower seeds. Sue adopted and adapted her mother’s dill dressing, making from the original recipe a low-fat version that health-conscious patrons appreciate.

Sue proudly abides by an old southern tradition which dictates barbecue cooking and serving days. In small towns across the South, the tradition lives on: cookers and sellers of the specially cooked pork (or chicken, in Sue’s case) only offer their meat on the weekends since, during the rest of the week, they’re hard at work at their demanding day jobs. In keeping with this tradition, Sue only offers her barbecue on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

But customers can rest assured that there is plenty to choose from on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays as well. On Wednesday, for instance, the special is a savory tomato pie, which many customers simply cannot seem to live without. Another special and beloved item is Anne’s tomato basil soup. Sue created it—Anne perfected it and made it her own. All the café sandwich fixings are original recipes, made daily from scratch. Sue also makes lemon icing cupcakes and ginger molasses cookies, also her own recipes. The café may be best-known for Sue’s caramel cakes, which have literally made their way across the country to the satisfaction of many a sweet tooth.

It might sound cliché, but leaving The Happy Café is like leaving home. You know you’ll be back, but you’ll miss it while you’re gone.