One on One: The virus claims another victim

by D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – The virus hit home the other day.

Right in the tummy.

During the last few weeks I have been reviewing final page proofs for an update and expansion to my book, “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries,” first published in 2016 and a surprising success. But it badly needs revision because we have lost some of North Carolina’s most cherished eateries, including Wilber’s in Goldsboro, Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, Bill’s in Wilson. These were special losses for all North Carolinians because they had become legendary gathering places.

The loss of these places and more than 15 others in the book called for a revision to replace the lost classics and add others that have earned a place in people’s hearts.

With the help of readers of this column, I found good substitutes for the lost classics and added a bunch of other good choices. The revision was to be ready to hit the market in the fall.

Last week, just when I was enjoying my last read of the revised book in its final form, the publisher’s editor called. It was very sad news. “We don’t know which of your restaurants can survive the battle against the virus. Let’s talk about what we should do.”

Immediately, I knew he was right. During these times of shutdown we are probably going to lose more of my favorite eateries. What good would a new edition be if it is out-of-date on the day of its publication?

My editor was right to suggest we take a pause to, as he said, “reassess.”

I hope we are wrong, but it is going to be very hard for small restaurants like the ones my book features to fight against the tidal challenges they face in the virus shut-down days.

There is no greater advocate for barbecue than John Shelton Reed, co-author of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” and champion of slow cooking over wood coals, what he calls “Real-Q.”

Reed is worried too, and told me, “North Carolina’s old-time barbecue places were already an endangered species, and this may put some of them out of business.  Most of them are still offering take-out service (I just checked). People who care about our barbecue heritage should patronize them right now, so they’ll still be there when this is over. Buy more than you need. Barbecue freezes just fine.”

The challenge for small restaurants is not just a North Carolina one. It is all over the country.

In an article for the April 5 The New York Times Magazine, author David Marchese features small New York restaurant owner David Chang, who has closed his small restaurants. Chang told Marchese he thinks, for restaurants, “there is going to be a morbidly high business death rate. My fear is the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains, and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great.”

What is the solution? Chang agrees with Reed that there is no magic.  “The short-term solution is to buy as much as you can from a restaurant. If this thing goes as bad as it’s going, the landscape is going to be forever changed. It’s going to be a whole new world.”

In the midst of the discouraging reports of a postponed book and possible losses of more classic eateries, there is one good piece of news.

According to a report in the April Raleigh Magazine, confirmed by a good friend in Goldsboro, Wilber’s is set to reopen next month under new ownership. Now former owner Wilber Shirley, though almost 90 years old, will be a regular “welcome presence” in the restaurant.

If the delay in publishing the revised “Roadside Eateries” means we can put Wilber’s back in the book, it will almost be worth the wait.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 pm and Tuesday at 5:00 pm on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 pm and other times.

To view prior programs: