Susan Perry shoved a tray of several breakfast plates across the edge of a well-worn counter at Honey's Restaurant and Catering in Durham. "Wait, wait, wait," she yelled, running to join Lauren Emery, a server who had also abandoned a tray of breakfast specials. The two servers hugged several customers and posed for a picture before returning to their posts.
Honey's, a former drive-in that opened in 1960, was scheduled to close two hours later. "It's not 3:00 yet," another server announced while she rolled silverware. "We've got to ride this bus 'til the wheels fall off."
Rumors that Honey's, Durham's only 24-hour diner, might shutter had been circulating for some time. Last year, Holmes Oil Co., which owns the Honey's building and property, revealed that it had other plans for the space near Guess Road and Interstate 85. The company extended Honey's lease multiple times, providing owner Buck Dickerson time to secure another spot for his restaurant. But those attempts have so far proved unsuccessful. Employees at the restaurant learned by Thursday that Sunday would be their last day.
"It's bittersweet," Dickerson said of Honey's closing. "It's been a tremendous ride. I wouldn't take anything for the last 33 years."
Dickerson started as a waiter and moved up to manager before acquiring the restaurant with his brother, Mel, eight years ago. August 31 would have marked his fourth year as sole proprietor.
Customers filed through Honey's columned entrance to show support and say goodbye to Dickerson and others. One couple even drove 11 hours from Ohio for a final meal.
"It's worth the wait," a woman shouted to a family who, upon seeing the line for a table, looked as if they might leave. "It's our first time here," they answered.
The woman nodded then turned to Cindy Chamberlain, who had come to offer her a seat. "I'm trying not to cry," she told Chamberlain. "But I can say I'll miss you."
Chamberlain, who greeted customers at the door on Sunday, knew many in the crowd. Upon moving to Durham from New York 18 years ago, she applied for a job at the restaurant and was hired on the spot, rising from server to general manager. "The staff here are like family," she said.
The dark green booths at Honey's were home to a diverse crowd: truck drivers, families and retirees. Gene Mangum, who has visited the restaurant since it opened, sat at the counter six days a week for an afternoon cup of coffee. He used to hold post at a larger table with six to eight other men; all but one of them has passed away. "I was just sitting here thinking about all the people who are no longer with us—a gang of people," he said on the closing afternoon.
Sunday was like a wake, particularly when a slew of done-up churchgoers appeared shortly after noon. For many, it was hard to believe they wouldn't see one another again. "Are you coming back today?" Emery asked a customer, Don Witten, when he took his bill to the register. "I'm not," he said, hugging her. Witten, who had eaten at Honey's every day, wasn't sure where his next regular stop would be.
Dickerson hopes Honey's will soon reopen under a different name. "This is the last chapter of this novel, but there's a sequel yet to come," he said. Employees, including Chamberlain and Emery, hope to follow him to his next venture.
On Sunday, Dickerson tried to keep up with his final rush. Though the regular five-page menu had been abbreviated to one printed sheet, then a dry-erase board, he found himself leaving to buy additional crates of eggs. Copies of the original laminated menu, which included the likes of eggs and bacon, hamburgers, steak-stir fry, Malibu chicken and "Why Yankees Come South" (country ham with red eye gravy, mashed potatoes and slaw), were sold for $10 each.
The line thinned shortly after 2 p.m., but customers continued steadily through the door until the end. Ruby Dunn, a former proofreader for The Herald-Sun who regularly ate at Honey's before work and celebrated her birthday at the restaurant last week, arrived a few minutes before 3 p.m. and was thankful to find a table. "Anything for you, Ms. Ruby," Chamberlain told her.
Earlier in the parking lot, Dickerson had wondered if he had a key to the restaurant, which traditionally only closed each year on Christmas Day. At 3:00, he and Chamberlain turned the lock.
Coffee still dripped into a Maxwell House pot, but the whirling toaster came to a halt. A man pulled on the restaurant's double glass doors. "We're closed, honey," Chamberlain told him. Then, "I'm going to take a bit of a vacation."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Three o'clock blues."