Peach County deli owner won’t vote Trump, but many of her patrons will

In presidential toss-up county, there are hard divisions but few arguments.
The Drugstore Deli, run by Sara Jo McLean in the northeastern Peach County town of Byron, is a favorite lunch spot for locals. (Joe Kovac Jr. / AJC)

Credit: Joe Kovac Jr.

Credit: Joe Kovac Jr.

The Drugstore Deli, run by Sara Jo McLean in the northeastern Peach County town of Byron, is a favorite lunch spot for locals. (Joe Kovac Jr. / AJC)

BYRON — In autumn 2012, not long after Sara Jo McLean opened her luncheonette in an old pharmacy along Main Street, something was said during a presidential debate that stirred passions across the land.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney uttered the words while facing off against incumbent President Barack Obama.

“I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney said, threatening the network that generations have turned to for educational shows, including “Sesame Street.”

McLean, a Democrat in a town that trends Republican, stuck a sign in the front of her diner imploring, “Don’t Fire Big Bird.”

A customer in her 70s demanded that McLean remove the sign. The restaurant owner refused. “I’m never coming back here,” the woman scoffed.

“It’s a free country. Your choice,” McLean shot back. “But the sign stays.”

Sara Jo McLean, owner of the Drugstore Deli in tiny downtown Byron, a Peach County city of about 6,000 people. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


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McLean, who runs the Drugstore Deli with the help of her daughter, Vicki, is cognizant of the fine line business owners must navigate in small towns — or any town. Politics and business often don’t commingle well. Especially in this charged climate.

In Byron, a Peach County town of about 6,000 people, Donald Trump took 65% of the vote in 2020. Countywide, Trump’s winning margin was far slimmer. He edged Joe Biden by 584 votes.

Byron sits about 10 minutes south of Macon, straddling I-75 amid a cluster of RV and car dealerships. The Drugstore Deli has been an anchor in the tiny downtown since 2010. Last year, McLean, 83, turned a profit for the first time.

Her deli, flanked by a train depot and a Methodist church, is decorated in what you might callmidcentury Mason jar,” with old plates, bottles and other ornate vessels. A “Prescriptions” sign, a holdover from the building’s medicinal past, stretches across a wall. Out front, the Big Bird sign is long gone.

Vicki McLean, who is 60, describes herself as a moderate who is “always looking for common ground” with customers. Her advice to her mother is to keep opinions to herself. “Mom, people are not gonna come if they think you’re political,” she said.

Sara Jo McLean, ever diplomatic, said, “I think you can get your point across without being rude.”

Not that the place is frequently a forum for debate. It is, however, something of a town square in a town without one.

Mayor Michael L. Chidester says conversations at the deli rarely become charged. They’re typically as tame as the chicken salad.

“The Democrats around here don’t tend to be really loud about it,” Chidester said. “Republicans around here don’t either.”

In weekly posts on her restaurant’s Facebook page, Sara Jo McLean reflects on such innocuous topics as a snake on her porch, her bad back, her “kitchen window lizard” — all followed, without fail, by the week’s menu specials.

The posts almost never delve into political or social issues. But a couple of times they have, though delicately enough to avoid backlash. In March, she heard about a Congressional candidate somewhere whose platform included rescinding voting rights for women.

“Wait! What? ... You cannot make this stuff up!” she wrote before transitioning to that week’s salad offerings.

Sara Jo McLean opened the Drugstore Deli in the Peach County town of Byron in 2010. She runs the luncheonette with her daughter, Vicki McLean. The restaurant, open Wednesdays through Saturdays, turned a profit for the first time last year. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


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After the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot, the elder McLean, in that week’s Facebook post, opined on “the elephant in the room,” how it “looms large,” how the riot left her “saddened.”

“When did right or left become right or wrong?” she wrote. “One vote. The one vote we all have to exercise. Or not. The right to state your choice. But only the right to state your choice. Death and destruction don’t count. ... It’s kinda hard to segue to the menu. But here goes. Soups: Split Pea w/ Ham, Black Bean Chili. Quiches ...”

A Warner Robins native, she has worked as a caterer and a cook, among other jobs. She’s been the proprietor of a tea room in Kentucky and served a stint as a small-college soccer coach.

“I do know friends who are Republicans, who will probably vote for Trump,” she said, noting that she will not. “Nobody’s been nasty about it. I think that’s the thing that separates Byron from a lot of other places. I haven’t found it to be mean-spirited.”

On a recent afternoon, a patron ate lunch with friends in the corner. On her way out, she stopped by a table where McLean was talking politics with a reporter.

“Don’t name no names,” the woman said, addressing the reporter. “But tell them the table in the corner loves Trump. He’s for America.”

Sara Jo McLean held her tongue.