At eleven o'clock on a weekday morning, downtown Durham is abuzz with the sounds of a rapidly expanding cityscape. Cranes whirr, trucks buckle under the weight of concrete and steel, and sparks fly, as a wave of growth sweeps across a boom-and-bust tobacco town that might just be a real city now.
Just a mile down the road, at a strip mall along Fayetteville Street, a contrasting tableau takes shape as a long line of regulars forms outside Roy's Kountry Kitchen. Since 1990, Roy's has served homemade, nostalgia-inducing country and soul food, feeding the Hayti community where years of post-freeway urban renewal had taken its toll. As Durham rapidly expands, many of the city's entrepreneurs are excluded from that growth, especially the women and people of color who demonstrated magnificent resilience through downturns in the 1990s and early 2000s, and again in 2008. Their businesses, like Chicken Hut, Art Sign Company, Signature Kutz Barbershop, and George's Restaurant, are not deemed up-and-coming by marketers. Blue Coffee Cafe remains in real-estate limbo, unable to find an affordable new home in Durham; MS Designs Embroidery closed after nearly two decades last fall.
When asked why she wakes up at dawn, six days a week, to feed familiar faces, Roy's proprietor Pattie Brown smiles and replies, "We didn't have a choice." Leroy Brown, her husband and the restaurant's namesake, has been out of the kitchen for about eight years for health reasons. He relinquished his kitchen role to Pattie, who has graciously run Roy's ever since. She never thinks about changing the name.
Walking in with the eleven-on-the-dot regulars, one is hit with a wave of laughter, the sound of clanking spoons, and joyful salutations. Roy's is usually full of regulars, and much of the rotating staff is made up of Brown family members, but the casual customer can still feel right at home in a welcoming atmosphere, away from the flying sparks up the road.
Leroy learned how to cook while in the Army, and for years he dreamed of opening up "a little place." The former occupant of the space, a sandwich shop called B&G's, was a "little different," according to Leroy's daughter Cheryl, referring to the store's practice of selling alcohol without a liquor license. But the sandwiches were so good that folks looked the other way.
When the nook became available, Pattie snatched it up. Since then, the family has taken over the adjacent space to create the "Julian Room," available for parties, meetings, and graduation ceremonies for the NCCU Eagles and Hillside High.
Many of the regulars who come to Roy's nearly every day are older single men, for whom the Browns, and other customers, are truly like family. Cheryl and her mom even phone them or ask others to go by their homes to check on them when they haven't been around in a few days, just to make sure they are OK.
Rich meatloaf, sweet and luscious stewed tomatoes, and rutabaga redolent of the earth serenade you with a sense of belonging as you make your way down the casual meat-and-three cafeteria line. Other specialties are less traditional. "This is the Obama, you want one?" Cheryl asks, holding up a Styrofoam cup of a purple drink made with lemonade, sweet tea, and fruit punch. "I thought that was the Arnold Palmer," asks longtime customer Mr. OJ (short for Oscar Williams). He's a six-day-a-week regular, including the Saturday mornings that Roy's is open for made-to-order breakfast. "Nope, this is the Obama," Cheryl replies firmly, her pride for our first black president coming through in her quick retort. Everyone chuckles at the exchange. Maybe the extra-sweet drink speaks to the hope of the great leader and what his presidency meant to black communities in Durham.
Bill Fields, former athletic director at North Carolina Central University, is another regular. He doesn't even live in Durham anymore, but he comes from Winston-Salem to be at Roy's every week. "At any given time I know that just about all my friends will be here," he says.
James Smith, the restaurant's longtime dishwasher, radiates positivity and hope. "It's a marvelous place, a family place," he says. "Roy's Kitchen is one of the best places I ever worked at or ever ate at. It should be expanded, as people come from all over. Good ol' country food." The menu, a laundry list of Southern comfort and soul dishes, changes constantly based on seasonality and interest. The fried cornbread, often missing from the soulless corporate Southern chains dotting the Carolina landscape, is a singularly pleasing experience.
"As long as there's a Roy's Kitchen, there will be a James Smith," James says. His employment at Roy's is another reason why the Brown family enterprise means so much to people. James was formerly incarcerated, but the Browns welcomed him back with open arms. The criminal justice system often leaves people like James with big debts and few if any resources. The relief of having stable employment at a place like Roy's is obvious in James's words and face.
Lex, another regular, recalls his early conversations with Leroy, many of which came down to: "Roy, I've known you a good long while, but where you are, you don't have any white customers." Leroy always emphatically replies that he has plenty of white customers. But Lex always rebuts with his favorite quip: "First seven times I came in here, I was the only salt in the pepper family!" Cheryl smirks at Lex's story and teases him for trying to get extra cornbread.
Cheryl's twenty-six-year-old son, Kyle Jeffers, recently started an Instagram account for Roy's, aiming to capture a wider audience, especially now that more NCCU students and staff, and residents in the adjacent Southside district, are becoming regulars themselves. She's driven by her community's real needs: in addition to managing Roy's, she also runs a small pre-K program that her mother started in 1972 in their home nearby, which my daughters attend. People like Cheryl and places like Roy's are exactly what make Durham cool. They are real, they are honest, they are home. I suggest you try Roy's. You, too, might just become a regular.
Benjamin Filippo is executive director of Preservation Durham and a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he examines the independent entrepreneur's value in American cities.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Eleven on the Dot."