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Friday, September 23, 2011

Meet-and-Three: Finch's of Raleigh

Posted by on Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 2:29 PM

Peggy Jin sells pecan pie to Antonio Lott at Finchs Family Restaurant in Raleigh.
  • Peggy Jin sells pecan pie to Antonio Lott at Finch's Family Restaurant in Raleigh.
Finch’s Family Restaurant hasn’t changed its appearance much since 1945, when it opened on Peace Street. “Curb Service” remains stenciled in capital black letters on a front window, and the Raleigh institution still has a long covered walkway with diagonal parking spots from the days that it was a drive-in restaurant.

Inside, Finch’s is known for its beige lunch counter, which stretches across a good length of the main dining room (there are three). Its worn formica top was one of the first things Peggy Jin wanted to change when she bought the restaurant in 1991. But regular customers were enraged. “Those are my arm spots,” they told her, referring to whitened areas on the countertop that flank each seat, where generations of diners have rested their arms and rubbed away the coloring.

Jin decided to leave the counter alone, busy with the repercussions of other changes she’d introduced. For one, she upped the price of the daily lunch special—a meat and two sides—from $3.75 to a whopping $4.25 (it’s now $6.75). “People complained,” she says of the small increase. But the biggest shift that puzzled many customers was Jin herself: a young Chinese-American behind the stove at a southern meat-and-three that served stewed vegetables, meatloaf and barbecue. “A lot of people didn’t accept me in the beginning,” she recalls.

After Jin took over Finch’s, a billboard was erected on Peace Street for a nearby McDonald’s. Emblazoned with the slogan, “Locally Owned,” the sign stood as a reminder of the narrow-minded attitudes Jin sometimes faced early on at her business. But she hung in there, thinking to herself, “I am local.”

Jin never intended to operate a restaurant. Her first kitchen stint was out of necessity, at a Wendy’s in 1987. She had recently relocated to Manhattan from Beijing, and since she couldn't speak any English, the fast food restaurant was the only place that would hire her. There, she acquired basic kitchen skills, cooking hamburgers and baked potatoes. “I learned American eating habits,” she says. “I learned how to flavor their food.” She also picked up some English, though not enough to pass the manager’s exam, which she was encouraged to take.

Jin moved to North Carolina in 1991. Pregnant with her daughter, she thought the state would provide a larger, more affordable space compared to what was available in New York.

She purchased Finch’s not long after her move, retaining the staff in order to provide a familiar face to customers. In 1999, Jin helped celebrate waitress Mildred Hall’s 35th year of service at the restaurant (a framed plaque honoring Hall rests on a wooden shelf near a corner booth). The veteran staff also helped Jin understand the recipes she inherited with Finch’s. Upon an initial look, Jin recalls thinking that the restaurant’s barbecue chicken looked good. But the barbecue pork: “I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ I’d never seen that in New York City.”

Today, she’s comfortable with all of the cooking. “I know how to do everything—from biscuits to whatever,” she says. Compared to Chinese food, which requires a lot of preparation and diced vegetables, Jin kids that “American food is easy. It’s a big piece of meat.”

Occasionally, Jin prepares fried rice for guests, but her specialty is hamburgers. “She makes the best burgers,” a customer yells across the dining room when he sees me talking to Jin. She claims that Finch’s also has great chicken salad, beef vegetable soup and spaghetti. Jin used to offer the latter once a week, but due to high demand, it’s on the menu every day.

The most popular meal, however, is breakfast, particularly on Sundays. Jin tried to start that service when she bought the restaurant, but couldn’t draw a crowd. It took a hurricane to get folks through the door. The Sunday after Fran (or Floyd? Jin questions), she stopped by to check on the restaurant. “People flooded in,” she says. “Are you cooking?”

Jin called her waitresses and worked the line. “Sunday is the best day since then,” she says.

Change can be a good thing.

Finch’s Family Restaurant (401 W. Peace St., Raleigh) is open 6 a.m.—3 p.m., Monday through Friday, 6 a.m.—1 p.m. Saturday, and 7 a.m.—2 p.m. Sunday.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meet-and-Three: Campbell's Diner of Fuquay-Varina

Posted by on Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 11:48 AM

Dora Campbell opened Campbells Diner in 1971.
  • Dora Campbell opened Campbell's Diner in 1971.
Dora Campbell didn’t want a diner. As a child, she watched her father, Carl Powell, run one of the only two eateries in Fuquay, the aptly named Fuquay Restaurant. He offered the place to her when he retired in the 1960s. But Campbell, now 82, declined, secure in a job at Cornell-Dubilier Electronics. “I said, ‘Daddy, I wouldn’t work myself and kill myself like you have.’”

Never say never. Campbell ended up in the restaurant business. Earlier this week, she celebrated 40 years of running her own Fuquay establishment, Campbell’s Diner. “If you ever start [a restaurant], it’s hard to quit,” she says of her tenure.

It’s the last man standing on a developed part of Main Street that packs nearly 40 restaurants—mostly brick, and mostly chain eateries—into a three-mile stretch. With rusty-brown lettering that spells the restaurant’s name across its beige wood siding, Campbell’s is a trailer. From the road, tiny windows draped with scalloped white curtains obscure the dining room, which feels as homey as the building itself. Stationed behind a long lunch counter, a small white refrigerator displays family mementos: baby pictures, sports portraits and a newspaper clipping with Campbell, her husband, Junius, and the headline, “Campbells celebrate 65th anniversary.”

A dry-erase board pinned to the wall lists featured vegetables and meats (hamburger steak, an obvious favorite, is served on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Most of the recipes for such dishes were perfected in or inspired by relatives’ kitchens—many of which were professional. Campbell says her menu is similar to what her father served at Fuquay Restaurant, and what her brother, Billy Powell, offered at his post, Powell’s Café, which was located just outside of town. The dressing for the meatloaf at Campbell’s is a take on the barbecue sauce that Junius Campbell, 89, used to serve at Mike’s Barbecue, a wholesale and retail business that he ran on the outskirts of town.

Campbell began her own stint in the food industry when Floyd Baker, the man who took over her father’s place upon his retirement, decided to give it up. Campbell didn’t want to see the place close, so she left her job in electronics to oversee the business for five years. After that amount of time, she decided she was done with the hard work that a restaurant demands and closed it. “That lasted about nine months,” Campbell says. She missed the daily contact with customers and employees, so she bought a trailer near her husband’s business and opened Campbell’s. It was the day after Labor Day in 1971.

“Everyone came out to eat,” Campbell says. But everyone also asked that she move uptown. The trailer made relocating possible. So in 1974, Campbell hauled the building to its current spot on Main Street, which she rented for $45 a month. “Two days later, we were open again,” she says. Workers poured in from the nearby nuclear plant as early as 4:30 a.m. in search of a hot meal.

Campbells Diner in Fuquay-Varina.
  • Campbell's Diner in Fuquay-Varina.
Currently, a “For Sale” post is staked at one corner of the property. Fuquay-Varina’s Independent wrote recently that the sign “had rumors flying last week as fear spread that the town’s iconic Campbell’s Diner might be about to change hands … or even vanish.”

The restaurant has a regular base of customers including a group called ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out), which meets for breakfast once a month. Campbell, like her customers, hopes that anyone who buys the property will allow the restaurant to stay. “I can’t move the diner,” she says. “Trailers deteriorate.”

Campbell and Junius, who eventually closed his barbecue business in order to help with the in-town restaurant, no longer work a regular shift at Campbell’s Diner. They turned over the day-day-day business to two longtime employees last January. “It was time for us to slow up,” she says. Still, Campbell continues to make weekly runs to the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, where she’s bought fresh vegetables from wholesaler Dennis Ennis and his family for 45 years. She also regularly visits Campbell’s.

Junius dines at the restaurant almost every day at 11 a.m. “I tell him to go eat a big lunch and then if I don’t cook dinner that’s OK,” Campbell says.

With her new time off, Campbell enjoys dining out, too. She regularly joins a group of six to ten women—many of whom are from her church—for daily lunches. “There are 75 restaurants in town today,” she says. But to her, Campbell’s isn’t one of them. It’s home.

Campbell's Diner (530 N. Main St., Fuquay-Varina, 552-6921) is open 6 a.m.—2 p.m., Monday through Friday and 6 a.m.—11 a.m. Saturday.

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