Raleigh's Irregardless Cafe reaches a rare milestone | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Raleigh's Irregardless Cafe reaches a rare milestone 

Owner and chef, Arthur Gordon

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Owner and chef, Arthur Gordon

On A quiet bend of Morgan Street, between Central Prison and the bustling traffic circles of Hillsborough Street, sits a modest green building adorned with twin awnings and a tangle of running vines.

Anya Gordon flits around the exterior before dinner service at Irregardless Cafe, pointing out fresh lettuces in garden containers and herbs that grow in the restaurant's windowsills. In a few hours a jazz band will take the stage, and the kitchen will dispatch a collection of locally sourced meat, seafood, meatless and gluten-free dishes.

When Irregardless opened Feb. 4, 1975, it was Raleigh's first vegetarian restaurant, and owner and executive chef Arthur Gordon was just 25 years old. He had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with dual chemistry and philosophy degrees, and then applied to the Culinary Institute of America.

"They said, 'We'd love to have you, but we suggest a year's cooking experience, because you're going to cut your fingers and burn your hands,'" Gordon says with a belly laugh. "I thought, 'I'll just open a restaurant for a year or two and then I'll go get trained and open a real restaurant.' Forty years later, I haven't been to cooking school, but I got my experience in."

It was by happenstance that the cafe became famous. That same year, a 20-year-old African-American woman named Joan Little was arrested in Washington, N.C., for larceny and breaking and entering. While in jail, she was sexually assaulted by the white warden, 62-year-old Clarence Alligood—whom she stabbed to death with an ice pick. In June of 1975, two of Gordon's employees were summoned for jury duty in Little's trial.

The first of nine jurors selected was 21-year-old Cornelia Howell, described by the Associated Press as "a waitress in the Irregardless Cafe, a new 'healthful foods' restaurant in Raleigh," as well as "a liberated lady." Jule Hudson, a 23-year-old cook at the cafe, was also selected.

"They were sequestered for about six weeks," Gordon remembers. "The [Raleigh Times] picked up on it, and the headline was, 'Restaurant Short-Handed During Trial.' Here we were, open six months, and we get front-page publicity."

The trial received coverage in Time, People, and The New York Times. Irregardless went from serving 15 people a day to more than 80.

In 1975, there were only a handful of restaurants in Raleigh, including The Mecca, the Angus Barn and K&W Cafeteria. "So, a lot of people were curious when they heard about a vegetarian restaurant," Gordon says. "They were like, 'That doesn't have a chance in hell, so we better try it, because they're not going to be around for long!'" (They added fish to the menu after seven years, chicken another seven after that, and red meat seven more years later.)

The customers kept coming, and the cafe made history again when it became the first smoke-free establishment in North Carolina, 25 years ahead of statewide legislation.

In a 1985 memo regarding the decision, Gordon wrote, "In the movies, you could always tell the pioneers—they were the ones with arrows in their backs." The accompanying photograph of the smiling chef in a toque and white coat, with a whisk and spatula crossed in an X over his chest, nicely captured his unapologetic attitude.

The smoking ban didn't stop a kitchen fire from destroying the dining room in 1994. The restaurant was closed 11 months, but Gordon continued to pay his employees during the rebuild.

"I told my staff that if they would volunteer at a nonprofit organization for the same amount of hours they worked, plus 10 percent of their own time, then I would pay them," Gordon says. "Of course, my accountant told me it was a terrible idea that would cost me a lot of money. But almost everyone was living paycheck to paycheck. It never seemed like it wasn't the right thing to do."

Gordon estimates 80 percent of his staff accepted the offer, and it cost him about $70,000.

In 2010, the cafe received the City of Raleigh's Environmental Award for Market Transformation. Earlier this month, former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker—a friend who has "probably eaten at the restaurant for the last 40 years," according to Anya Gordon—presented Arthur Gordon with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award. It is one of the most prestigious in the state, requiring a minimum of 30 years of "significant community service and demonstrated excellence."

Operating Raleigh's longest-running restaurant with the same owner (in the same location, no less) might be enough for some. But Gordon, alongside wife and marketing director Anya, keep building on their accomplishment. In 2012, the duo installed 10 thermal solar panels on the rooftop of their building. And in 2013, they opened their own micro-farm, the Well-Fed Community Garden, three miles from the restaurant. The garden supplies 80 percent of the produce that goes into dishes at the cafe, Gordon estimates, while the other 20 percent is distributed to the community.

"I would say that the journey of this restaurant has been the path of the heart," Gordon says, his voice a little softer than before. "When your heart tells you what you should be doing, it's loud and clear. You can hear it whisper from the back of the room. And when I tie into it ... boy, it just seems to work out every time."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The 40 club."

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