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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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