By Isabelle Khurshudyan
July 9, 2013
A week doesn’t go by that Gene Sansbury isn’t recognized as the biscuit man.
But the former owner of the Biscuit House on Bluff Road has moved on. He says he often doesn’t recall most of his former customers when they stop to say “Hi.” He doesn’t even eat biscuits anymore. They don’t fit into his diet.
Sansbury, 63, is enjoying his biscuit-free retirement, spending his time instead as an amateur historian helping with research at the Richland County Public Library.
He says friends and family thought he would struggle adjusting to retirement after the Biscuit House closed in 2010. The end came when the University of South Carolina bought the state Farmers Market across from Williams-Brice Stadium for practice fields and parking.
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Sansbury says the popular local gastronomic landmark enjoyed profitability largely because of its location, so when the Farmers Market moved, Sansbury chose not to move to Lexington County with it.
But Sansbury says he’s found a new niche, applying the same personal touch he used at the Biscuit House to the work he does unearthing old obituaries and other historical records at the Richland County library.
“It’s been really rewarding for me,” Sansbury says. “It’s a different type of interaction than I had at Biscuit House, but it’s been every bit as enjoyable.”
Sansbury started as a dishwasher at the restaurant in 1983 when he wanted a minimum-wage job that left him enough time for his hobby – running 70 to 80 miles per week. When he saw the business struggling 10 years later, he bought it.
His wife, Sally Sansbury, and former Biscuit House employee Phyllismarie Johnson say they worried about how he would adjust once the Biscuit House closed. Sansbury says he enjoyed some of his best business in the restaurant’s final weeks and that he hasn’t looked back since closing its doors.
“When you look at that area now, it looks 10 times better than what it used to when the Farmers Market was out there,” he said. “The old market was pretty decrepit, so for the good of Columbia, it was probably the right thing to do.”
A Bojangles chicken-and-biscuit restaurant was just a few blocks away from Biscuit House. But Sansbury credited the connections he and his employees made with Biscuit House customers for his restaurant’s sustained success in spite of the competition.
Sansbury “had that extra spark with customers,” Johnson says.
David Tucker purchased the Biscuit House name, signs and recipes from Sansbury and opened two new locations in Irmo and Hopkins. Sansbury says he has no part in the new operation.
Sansbury now spends 15 to 20 hours a week volunteering at the library’s Walker Local and Family History Center.
Walker Center manager Debbie Bloom says that unlike most people in Columbia, she didn’t come to know Sansbury from the Biscuit House. She noticed him spending hours in the library, using the microfilm to look at old South Carolina newspapers as he was finishing up his history degree at USC.
Bloom says working with microfilm can be a skill, so she offered Sansbury a volunteer position to help run a service that provides copies of old obituaries published in The State. She says Sansbury has shined at building relationships with people he usually just exchanges email with and that she frequently receives compliments about him from those using the service. Some just want him to do the research.
“They put ‘Attention Gene’ on the request,” Bloom says.
Sansbury describes himself as a history buff and says he spends much of his free time looking at newspaper clippings from 1964 and researching the events of that key year in civil rights and political history.
“Tons of things happened back in ’64 that have shaped the world as we know it today, and so I find that a real interesting and challenging assignment,” he says.
He says that before he and Sally married, he tried to impress her by bragging that he was going to read the entire South Carolina Encyclopedia over the holidays. Sansbury’s former employee Johnson says that when she finds old books from the 1800s, she buys them for him.
When he isn’t at the library, Sansbury says, he spends most of his other time on a “strict” exercise routine in the afternoons.
His wife says she had hoped the Biscuit House’s closing would give her more time with him, but she says he keeps himself busy just as much now as he ever did.
Sally Sansbury says the two don’t miss the Biscuit House even though they met there when she had to order some biscuits. Well, except for one thing.
“Those biscuits sure were tasty,” she says.