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Arts & Culture

The Legacy Of The Secret Sandwich Society Lives On As Community Comes Together To Rebuild

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Courtesy
On Nov. 5 2020, the Secret Sandwich Society -- a popular restaurant in Fayetteville, West Virginia -- caught fire. It was a destination for travelers and a popular gathering place.

Fayetteville, a small town in the heart of West Virginia known for its rafting and outdoor community, hosts a variety of places to eat popular with residents and visitors.

The Secret Sandwich Society, a town favorite restaurant and a hotspot for the music scene in Fayetteville, was popular for their unique sandwiches and late night live music. The restaurant lived in a historic 100 year old building.

Lewis Rhinehart, the proud owner of the eatery, watched as it all went up into flames.

“We were operating at our highest level of efficiency that we had ever operated at,” he said. “And then on Nov. 5, it all burned down.”

“I mean, everybody was just in shock,” said Fayetteville Mayor Sharon Cruikshank. “Everybody was really devastated for Lewis and the staff. It was very upsetting.”

After dedicating years of his life into making Secret Sandwich Society what it was, Rhinehart was devastated and heartbroken.

“But in the weeks after that, you know, I just cried and cried and cried and cried," he said. "I mean, it was terrible. Yeah. You know, I'd wake up and cry, go to the shower and cry. You know, it was just awful.”

The Secret Sandwich Society had live music performances five nights a week, bringing people to the area.

Losing the restaurant also meant the loss of a big part of the Fayetteville music scene, said Cruikshank.

“I think Secret became such a destination in itself just because of the music and the food,” she said. “So the fire was really devastating to us, because they brought such a neat vibe to the town.”

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Courtesy
Owner of the Secret Sandwich Society Lewis Rhinehart sadi community support, and support from across the state, was overwhelming.

Community support and support from across the state, Rhinehart said, was overwhelming.

“The outpouring of support in those weeks after that, yeah,” he said. “So, in literally that day, in that evening. I got a phone call from [Sen.] Joe Manchin. I got a phone call from [Rep.] Carol Miller. I got a phone call from [Sen.] Shelley Moore Capito. I got letters from the Charleston City Council. It was really just incredible.”

Fayetteville showed its true colors after the building burnt down, said Adam Mathews — Rhinehart’s right hand man.

“When that building burned down everybody was just there for us,” Mathews said. “That was it. Yeah, it was very emotional. It was surreal.”

Cruikshank said the loss of the restaurant was a big hit to the community.

“It created a deficit of places for people to eat, when they were in the New River Gorge area,” she said. “Secret was a very successful business for Fayetteville. ”

After a year-long search for a new location to rebuild, Rhinehart settled on the same property.

“Then we really started revisiting the rebuild idea," he said. "We closed on the deal for the building at the end of last November. So, what has been happening now is the building is designed and ready to go.”

The new restaurant design pays homage to the old building and imitates the nostalgic feel of the previous restaurant, but still adds elements of a modern layout. Rhinehart and Mathews added things into the new restaurant to increase speed and productivity.

“There was a silver lining to all this pain and stress and frustration and you know, everything,” Rhinehart said. “We are getting a building that we want now. We are getting a building that we can deliver the output and quality that we've always wanted.”

As construction starts, there’s a sense of anticipation growing, and an appreciation for the resiliency demonstrated this past year.

“Phoenix rising from the ashes type metaphor,” Mathews said. “I mean, it's like everybody said that there's irony or whatever in how we went out and there's, you know, a great deal of symbolism to me and how we're coming back.”

“I don't think that it can happen too soon,” said Cruikshank. “I think everybody's way past ready for [Rhinehart] to open up. So I think it'll be a really nice homecoming. It definitely will be a town celebration."

Rhinehart and his team say they’re planning to have their doors to their new restaurant open by this fall.

Bryson Sapio is a high school junior at the Fayette Institute of Technology. He reported this story as part of a project with Inside Appalachia to learn how to make radio stories.


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