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Ron McKinney's airport cafe career took him to heights beyond what he could've imagined

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When Brian Thomas and his five-year-old son Banks flew into the Rutherford County Airport on a bright sunny day recently, it was for the purpose of having a final meal with chef Ron McKinney at 57 Alpha Cafe.

For 32 years, Ron prepared his special burgers and Southwestern Cuisine to thousands at 57 Alpha Cafe, the only food service venue at the airport.

On his final day of cooking, Sunday, Nov. 19, before his official retirement, Ron prepared several chicken quesadillas for lunch guests. Brian Thomas had a chicken quesadilla and Banks had a cheese quesadilla from the kids menu.

Brian and Banks took a seat inside the small cafe and talked about the joy of having lunch there.

Brian said when got his pilot's license, the first place he flew was to Rutherford County airport to dine at 57 Alpha Cafe.

Bob and Sharon Decker were also two of Ron's final customers on that Sunday and also enjoyed the chicken quesadillas. The Deckers wished their friend well and told him to go home to rest and take care of himself. He had worked diligently making meals at the airport for three decades, now it was his time to rest and relax.

Ron decided almost instantaneously he would retire on Nov. 19. He was at the cafe just the week before prepping for the next day and decided it was time to go home. His feet hurt and he was tired.

For 32 years Ron ran his Cafe and never took a vacation for himself. His wife Gina would help him on weekends, when it was possible.

When the global pandemic brought the cafe to a halt for nine months as the world was shut down," Ron said, he had his "ankle rebuilt." It certainly wasn't a vacation, but it was a good time to have the major surgery.

A plane crash in 2011 also grounded Ron for nine months.

He was flying an experimental homebuilt plane when he crashed it at the airport.

Although he had flown the plane for about four years, on that day the plane could not withstand a gust of wind. "That got me," he said.

"I'm still trying to recover," Ron said.

He sustained 14 broken bones that took months to heal. He lives with the pain every day.

"They (people at the airport) were coming to get the body out of the plane, but I was yelling, 'get me out of here'," Ron recalled.

"I hit the ground about 100 feet from the restaurant," he said.

"I hate that it happened, but I do not regret getting that plane," he said. "It was so much fun," he said.

Over three decades, Ron has served thousands of people flying into the airport or driving in just to have a meal there.

When Al Gore was running for President, his wife Tipper's plane flew into the airport for a campaign event in Rutherfordton. When the day ended, Ron sent catered meals for Gore and her team.

Ron served a lot of politicians, business people and everyday people and friends in his years of cooking.

One of his greatest supporters from Rutherford County was Gordon Scott, Jr. Ron said Gordon was there when he opened the Cafe and was a regular through 25 years.

He prepared lunch for several NASCAR drivers, flying into the area for a race.

When a chef from the Food Channel flew in one day, he and Ron discussed his Chile Verde Burrito and said they swapped a few burrito secrets.

In addition to the Chile Verde Burrito, other fan favorites were bacon cheeseburgers and chicken quesadillas.

When he was much younger, Ron and a friend left the area for 10 years to venture to Idaho to see Evil Knievel perform. Their car broke down in Colorado and they couldn't afford to go on, so the short trip became years.

"I got a job running a restaurant," he said. "Most everywhere I went I played music and ran restaurants. It was a parallel career."

At the restaurant in Colorado, he was asked to do the bookkeeping for the business at night.

"All that prepared me for my start in the food industry," Ron said.

Before coming back home, he and his friend worked in restaurants and played music in several states, including Alaska.

"Every place I worked, I'd take time to play music," Ron said.

That's what he's done at 57 Alpha Cafe. He entertained guests dining on the outdoor patio, wrote new music and made CDs.

When McKinney first opened the restaurant, the airport was known to air traffic controllers as Alpha 57. Although the name of the airstrip eventually changed, Ron kept the original name of his cafe.

"It was quality, fine dining and everyone knew it," he added.

Ron got his pilot's license in 1985 although his first lesson was in 1969.

At $16 per hour for lessons back then, he had to earn enough money to pay for his Chevy, attend Isothermal Community College and take flying lessons.

He worked at the Winn Dixie in Rutherfordton and in 1985 had finished his lessons and got his pilot's license.

"It was just about too expensive for me to fly at $16 per hour," he laughed.

As a pilot, Ron recalled some of his favorite days at the airport that had nothing to do with food.

A pilot from Gaffney, S.C., Randall Haynes, flew into the airport one day in a 1959 Vampire Fighter Jet he had purchased overseas. Ron said Randall would go overseas to buy jets and helicopters and would also build foreign flying machines.

"So he came in one day and told me he had an extra seat (on the fighter jet) if I wanted to take a ride," Ron said.

Ron closed the restaurant at noon that day, telephoned his parents and asked them to meet him at the Spartanburg airport for a ride back home.

"We did some acrobatic rolls. It was fun," Ron said. "It was one of my best days here," he said.

Another good day for Ron was when he actually flew his plane through a rainbow.

He said Gina (his wife) was on her way to the airport to fly with him, but he first wanted to see how the winds were before they went up together.

"I took the plane up and I was able to fly right through a rainbow," he said.

When Gina got to the airport, Ron asked her to guess what he had done.

"She told me, "I know. I saw it. You flew through a rainbow'." She witnessed it as she was driving to the airport.

As with all businesses there were tough days, too. His cafe was small and some days when customers had 30-minute waits, he got a little stressed.

"But they always waited," he said. He said when the pots and pans got stacked up in the sink, he would get a little anxious.

Ron ran a successful restaurant, was his own boss, played his favorite music and entertained guests. "It served me well," he said.

He's going to miss his customers, both the fly-ins and the drive-ins, he said, but has to take care of himself for a while.

When weather permits this spring, he's expected to play music on the outdoor stages of restaurants around town.

He plans to rest, write songs, play music, enjoy his surroundings and most likely will reminisce about the day he flew his plane through a rainbow in the sky.

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