It’s no secret that Cookout is a favorite of many USC students.
"I love Cookout. Absolutely love Cookout," fourth-year political science student Brian Rhatigan said. "We've been coming here since, what, freshman year?"
Employees of the Cookout location in Five Points said they have generally had positive experiences with customers from USC, even as students form crowds late at night, especially on the weekends.
Kayla Johnson, an employee at the location, said she sees students "on the daily" and that there’s a noticeable increase in customers at night.
"They're very respectful. They know what they want," Johnson said. "They're nice."
Many of the students The Daily Gamecock interviewed, such as third-year finance and marketing student Steven Nichols, said that they go to Cookout a few times a month.
Others, such as third-year global studies student Ben Harrison, said they go as often as once a week or simply whenever they feel like it.
"I love Cookout. I love it after 10:00 at night," first-year business student Sydney Kirshner said. "It just doesn't hit the same (earlier)."
Employee Jordan Vaughn said that students typically show up tired from sports practices, evening classes and other obligations — especially after home football games — which creates a busier atmosphere at the restaurant.
Workers at the Five Points Cookout said there have been few memorable incidents involving USC students on their shift, but they said that they have heard a few stories from co-workers and employees at other locations.
Employee Dymond Montaque said she's seen incidents "from afar" but never in or directly outside the restaurant.
"I was on break one day, and I saw a couple college kids break out fighting ... weapons got pulled," Montaque said. "That's about it."
Johnson also said that she has heard stories of customers getting rowdy from co-workers that work other shifts, but those things have never happened on her shift.
But fourth-year retail student Sam Clarke said she has witnessed a few dramatic situations in her trips to the restaurant, such as when someone tried to cut the drive-thru line.
"It was a Friday night, definitely past midnight. ... This one person tried to be smart and sneak in the line," Clarke said. "The entire line erupted with anger ... It was insane. Everyone was honking their horns."
Clarke said this incident prompted several people to exit their vehicles and caused something of a firestorm on YikYak, an app where students can post messages and photos anonymously to members of the community.
"I was curious. I was like, 'I wonder what's on YikYak right now' ... The whole board is flooding with everyone dropping their license plate tag and sending threatening messages," Clarke said. "I'm sure none of it was serious, but it was so funny ... The sanctity of Cookout brought everyone to this degree of anger."
There aren't many easily identifiable differences between USC students and other Columbia residents who show up for a late-night meal, according to Johnson.
"It's really hard to separate the two (groups) because you don't know who's in college and who's not," Johnson said. "But they're usually in their Gamecock colors ... very supportive of their school. They're just normal customers, honestly."
However, Clarke said that students sometimes stand out from the average customer with a few identifiable traits.
“USC students have a different type of energy. Some are more entitled and obnoxious than others," Clarke said.
While employees didn't recall many memorable events, several students cited the potential for chaos as a key component of Cookout's appeal and a reason they keep coming back to the restaurant.
Harrison said that he remembers seeing someone climbing one of the trees by the restaurant and described it as "dinner and a show."
All employees and students interviewed said the main draw for USC students to Cookout is the long hours — the restaurant is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. on weekdays and until 5 a.m. on weekends — the large menu and the low cost of food.
"It's very affordable. You have a wide variety of the menu. It really meets everyone’s requirements," Johnson said. "The shakes — we have over 45 flavors."
The restaurant's hours of operation are a major part of its appeal to students. Harrison said he typically goes to the Cookout from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. while first-year computer information systems student Aidan Ehlers said that he usually only goes after 2 a.m.
For many students, such as Caroline Orr, a first-year dance and exercise science student, Cookout is also a good spot to meet up and hang out with friends.
"I've spent a lot of time with friends here. It's been a positive experience," Orr said.
Montaque said that, although there are some students that are "a little disrespectful" or "rude," they generally get along just fine with the employees.
"A lot of us really joke around and laugh and play with them," Montaque said. "I think they come here a little bit for entertainment."
Clarke, who has previous work experience in food service, said she was surprised about workers' positive outlook toward USC students.
“I thought for sure they would have a negative review on students. I’m sure there are some employees that feel differently about the students,” Clarke said.
Vaughn said that students aren’t the most respectful or accommodating customers at times but commended Clarke for being honest and transparent. Students, however, gave consistently positive reviews of employees and how they dealt with the late-night crowds.
Fourth-year biochemistry student Ryan Hustad said he is struck by how employees are able to maintain a strong focus and weather the storm of the job.
"Y'all are soldiers," Hustad said. "I'm impressed with how well they keep up with the orders."
Rhatigan said he was impressed with the staff, especially considering the bar-heavy atmosphere of the area.
"Having to deal with people in Five Points like this? I don't think I can do that, personally," Rhatigan said.
Johnson said the symbiotic relationship between Five Points and local college students is good for business, and many students felt it was an important part of their experience in Columbia.
Fourth-year finance student Brock Saftner said Cookout has brought a sense of comfort during his time at USC
"Cookout feels like home, honestly," Saftner said. "I just come here whenever I'm the most downtrodden, and every time, the people and the food picks me up."
Editor's note: Amanda Petty contributed to the reporting in this article.