This Small Southern Town Ran on Restaurants. Then Coronavirus Hit
"You have to realize about Kinston, if you cut eastern North Carolina off and made it its own state, it would be the poorest in the country," Vivian Howard tells me. "Kinston is the Trenton, New Jersey, of the South."
Nonetheless, in 2006, the Lenoir County native left her career in New York, where she worked at WD-50 and Jean-Georges, to open Chef and the Farmer in her childhood backyard. She quickly became famous for her progressive rural cooking, with dishes like "tom thumb," a relic of the hog killing Howard knew well as a child: hot sausages corseted into a pig's appendix, nearly bursting as it cures, then boiled and sliced, pan-fried as a patty, and put down on a plate of Sea Island red peas.
The restaurant spawned multiple PBS series and cookbooks and placed Kinston in the spotlight for the first time since its days as the political seat of the North Carolina tobacco trade. That was a long time ago. Kinston’s influence was extinguished at the end of the 20th century; plants from Dainty Maid to Dupont closed their doors, collapsing the local economy. Department stores vacated the plate-glass storefronts along Herritage Street downtown, until only Parrott’s General Store remained to supply more pragmatic shoppers with baby chicks, hoop cheese, and penny candy.
But with Howard’s rise, culinary tourism became a new source of pride and profit, everyone willing to take a chance on a new business because their neighbors did the same.
For the past week Food & Wine has reached out to every restaurant, café, and specialty store in town, collecting their stories of survival as they once again put up an industrious spirit against long odds.
Joe Hargitt, Owner of Kings Restaurant
There's little traffic flowing eastbound toward Kinston on that final stretch of US-70, before the highway winds toward Atlantic Beach. Ever since governor Roy Cooper shuttered non-essential businesses last week, truckers easily cruise between essential ones—hog farms, recycling centers, Walmart—while restaurants, their parking lots deserted, compete to signal they're open too. Joe Hargitt, the owner of Kings Restaurant, has had better luck than most as he hustles to maintain a livelihood and a legacy.
“Shipping is off the daggone chain,” Hargitt tells me over the phone. He’s had to lay off the part-time staff, but hostesses and cashiers turned packers now seal up ribs as fast as ten cooks can turn them out. “We sent out 200 packages on Monday,” he says, adding that orders last week were up 800%, with most of the food touching down in New York via platforms like Goldbelly. That, and the bokeh of high beams in the parking lot signaling pickups, make up 70% of lost business and will keep his lights on for an indeterminate future.
Kings has been a roadside destination since 1936, predating highway and hog. Frank King opened a general store atop a forgotten Civil War battlefield in a fight to keep his new family's one-horse farm afloat. Back then, his first diners were savvy shoppers taking advantage of the potbelly stove inside to heat up their canned sardines, an event that opened King’s eyes to a future in hot meals. Barbecue came later, after Frank's son returned from WWII with a new appetite, and in time the general store gave way to a patchwork of dining rooms that seats 300, packing in locals with a craving for "Pig in a Puppy," a 'cue and cornmeal special born at an old Kings lunch counter inside a local Piggly Wiggly. As a young manager, Hargitt transformed that dish, rebranding it as a sauce-sloppy hush puppy sandwich.
He sold more than 2000 a week before March 17, when Gov. Cooper gave the chairs-up order that all North Carolina eateries conform to curbside pickup and delivery. Hargitt was never an ambitious student—he only came by Kings his senior year of prep school, waiting tables to pay off a window he broke putting another student through it for trash-talking his golf swing—but barbecue has since brought out the savvy in him, and he took ownership of the business from the King family in 2004.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a Duponter like my daddy," he says. "I decided I never wanted to work that hard, but now I work more than he ever did." As proof, he's sacrificed everything to invest in the business, doubling down on SBA loans in the wake of Hurricane Florence, putting up his two homes as collateral.
“What motivates me is all the leans the government has on everything I own,” he says. “If i don’t make the payments from the floods, if this restaurant fails, then I don’t have anything. They take everything.”
Vivian Howard, Owner of Chef and the Farmer
No one in town took a hit like Howard, who laid off 130 employees between three restaurants—including one in Wilmington—presaging the governor's actions by a few days. “I wanted them to get to the top of the line for unemployment,” she tells me from her office, where she’s rejiggering a curbside operation she shut down last Monday “because the math wasn’t working.”
It did, however, attract customers, some of them in no rush to leave. “We saw people coming for celebrations, then eating in the parking lot,” she says, recalling a 40th birthday party for twins, the restaurant a midpoint between relatives. “And we had a couple on their first date seated six feet apart from each other.”
Soon she’ll reopen her online pop-up shop Handy & Hot to introduce what she calls "flavor heroes," two savory condiments meant to punch up and any dish. "Community Organizer" is a Southern-style sofrito, and "Little Green Dress" is a sauce that tastes "like a chimichurri and a salsa verde had a baby in a bed of olives." They'll each arrive with recipe cards transcribed from her forthcoming book, This Will Make It Taste Good, due out later this year.
After that, it’s a waiting game. “We’re not sure what our restaurant group will look like when we reopen,” she says. But she knows she’s never been more grateful to live in a rural area, with so much access to green space. “I’m not sure there’s going to be a mass exodus to the country, but I think a small trickle will benefit small towns.”
Leraine Tolston, Howard’s Older Sister and Owner of Queen Street Deli
Leraine Tolston, Howard’s older sister, is no less invested in her Queen Street Deli, a nine-year-old operation that grew out of her upstairs pilates studio. She’s cut her hours and staff, and put her pilates classes online, but she’s still going to work every morning, seeing an increase in coffee sales since Middle Grounds, the town’s only coffee shop, went on hiatus.
Her supplier has even given her hope that there’s money to be made in freezer meals. “My Sysco rep called me yesterday and asked if I have any 9-inch casserole pans because another restaurant in town needs them, and it’s like gloves and masks. We can’t get them,” she says.
Last week she received a catering order for 40 from a local doctor’s office where her oldest daughter is a nurse. That business went a long way, but she can’t help but absorb their anxiety. She’s prioritizing her family’s health above all. “I have a daughter who was studying abroad in Australia, and we’ve had her quarantine on the farm,” she says. “We picked her up at the airport and drove two cars just in case she came down with something.”
Jessy Dawson, Owner of Middle Grounds
It’s not like café owner Jessy Dawson wants to be stuck at home. “I’m an entrepreneur first and a mother second,” she admits, [but] I opened five years ago to make a difference in the community, and I can’t do that if no one’s left.”
Two Mondays ago, she started feeling uneasy. Her Middle Grounds customers are loyal and kept coming to the café to show their support. Meanwhile she was delivering to the hospital and pharmacies and kept encountering people better protected than she was.
At the end of the day, coffee felt inessential, a risk not worth taking for her or her patrons, so she decided for them.
“I care about my customers, and if they’re dead, I don’t know how I’m supposed to love them,” she says. It’s a sentiment she hopes they remember when this is all over because Starbucks is due to arrive in Kinston come fall.
Genell Pridgen, Owner of Whiskey Pig Craft Butchery
Business remains brisk next door to Middle Grounds. Whiskey Pig Craft Butchery is Genell Pridgen’s two-year-old retail extension of her family’s Rainbow Meadow Farms, one county over. That soil’s been in her family since before the Revolutionary War, but Whiskey Pig is the first butcher shop in Kinston in a half century. After slowly establishing a local clientele, the store began stocking fridges all over the country with whole lambs, half hogs, and quarters of beef.
“People are coming to us because they’ve gotten away from local farms, and now they get to reconnect to local food sources,” she says. “They realize they’ve become dependent on distribution systems, and there’s no meat at the store, and my family needs feeding.”
In-store she may only have a dozen customers a day, but they’re finding dishes with what Pridgen calls “international flair,” including Cuban mojo roasted pork and chicken korma curry pot pies that will feed five or six people for $20.
“It’s hard in such a traditional town,” she says. “Chef’s customers are more traveled, but the Lenoir County people aren’t so creative, so it’s harder to get them to try different things.” Still, she’ll try, hooking them with her grandma Nellie’s chicken salad, then winning their trust.
The dishes go over best at the farmers’ markets, and Pridgen continues to travel between them. “At Cedar Point last weekend they wouldn’t let but one person up at a time, and we had to wear gloves; somebody was taking temperatures,” she recalls. That’s some consolation considering she can’t keep her 75-year-old mother from joining her.
“These farms have been in her family since 1746, so I might as well be talking to a brick wall. I tell her to use hand sanitizer and I got her an N95 mask, but that’s the best I can do. She ain’t going to listen to anything I have to say,” she says.
Jackie Elmore, Owner of The Captain’s Corner and Co-Owner of Sugar Hill Pizza and Inside Scoop
Jackie Elmore was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in November, but she persists in working. “The doctors restricted me to stay home, but I still go in the mornings and do the schedule, bank deposits, paperwork,” she says. At night, she and her husband remain vigilant about supporting local restaurants like Villa Pizza and Baron & The Beef.
Elmore’s family has owned The Captain’s Corner, a local convenience store, since she was eleven. Today business is off by a half, but what she misses most is hanging out with regulars like Hoyt Minges Jr., whose brother runs the local PepsiCo bottling company. Minges prefers the counter here to the office, often squeezing in for steamed Frosty Morn hot dogs squished into Dainty Maid buns, cracking open a beer from the cold case and watching a game.
In lieu of such company, Elmore is comforted by the view out her window. “There’s more people walking by my front yard now,” she says. That’s a sentiment shared by the Elmores’ partner Chris Moore, with whom they co-own Sugar Hill Pizza and Inside Scoop.
“People are going back to the basics and walking around like I did when I was a kid,” Moore tells me. “It takes me back to life before technology when someone’s shouting dinner’s ready from the backyard when it’s getting dark.” He’s banking on some of those dinners being pizza. The national news makes him anxious, but he "heard pizza is the number one go-to food right now." Just in case that proves true, he’s kept all forty employees on the schedule, and only scaled back closing by an hour.
Like Joe Hargitt, he’s already reading up on the SBA loans, too, frustrated with the government’s priorities. “They talk about airlines and cruise ships, and that doesn’t hold a gnat’s ass to the restaurant industry—that’s who’s getting hit,” Moore says. He proves his point about what’s worth saving with personal touches, like when he comped a delivery of pizzas to the superintendent’s office on the eve of school shutdowns.
“I’m here for you today because I’m going to need you tomorrow” has become his gospel of late, a way for him to put his faith in practice out in the world since his church’s Sunday sermons have moved online.
George Smith, Owner of Smith's Café
George Smith also gets worked up by the nightly news.
“I want people to understand this is what communism is,” the Smith’s Cafe owner declares, unable to sit still in his 100-seat dining room across the road from the house that was his daddy’s house before him. “If the government told people to get behind the cow and be shot I reckon that’s what they’d do.”
His frustration is as much from misinformation about unused ventilators as it is lost income on walk-up orders, as diners opt for biscuits over omelets at a time when every dollar matters.
Still he’s open to a little socialism as long as no one calls it that.
Steve Lovick, Owner of Lovick's Cafe
When Joe Hargitt got a call to deliver 200 biscuits to two of the Minges’ PepsiCo plants at 5 o’clock in the morning, he called up George Smith and Steve Lovick, the owner of Lovick’s Cafe, and asked if they wanted the work. “So I outsourced it to them, and Steve went to help George fix it, and they each delivered one order, but George is getting all the money,” Hargitt says. “We’re helping each other out.”
Lovick’s Cafe has had a way about finding new customers for generations, and the pandemic has proven no different.
By 1941, Steve Lovick's grandparents were tired of working day and night for Fred Pully, the Joe Hargitt of his era. Pully sold oak-smoked barbecue to visiting farmers flush off their payday at the downtown tobacco markets, serving up no-frills plates in what's now the Mother Earth Brewery and Distillery. The elder Lovicks did Pully’s heavy lifting. "My grandfather worked the morning shift and put the hogs on; my grandmother worked the night," Steve Lovick recalls.
While walking to work one day, Steve’s grandparents devised a plan to open their own restaurant. Lovick's Cafe opened its doors at 2 a.m. that year, serving a witching hour rush of plant workers feeding between shifts and hankering for dough burgers. A Depression era carryover meant to stretch meat and a dollar, Milton blended pots of ground beef with flour and onions in the same weathered Hobart mixers that Steve uses today before flattening and flipping the meatballs until they’re browned to a crisp in a shallow pan of oil.
The only difference is now those orders—“a dough-cheese, a dough burger with chili, two dough burgers on smashed potatoes with gravy, on white bread with ketchup”—are coming in from online. Until two weeks ago he was getting the locals from nearby counties who can’t get a good country breakfast anymore, rounding out the dining rooms with tourists in town for Chef. "I could spot them on the sidewalk scouting the place the night before, and know I'd see them in the morning."
Now there are thirty new customers a day discovering the restaurant through its website, up about 500%, an offset to the losses he anticipates this week as people aren’t expected to return to their offices downtown. He’s grateful for the business Hargitt sends his way, and is finding more of his own, including the staff at Smithfield’s, the local pork-processing plant. “They’re out of control trying to keep up with grocery stores, so the bosses are feeding them.”
Now there are thirty new customers a day discovering the restaurant through its website, up about 500%, an offset to the losses he expects this week as people aren’t expected to return to their jobs downtown. He’s grateful for the business Hargitt sends his way, and is finding more of his own, including the staff at Smithfield’s, the local pork-processing plant. “They’re out of control trying to keep up with grocery stores, so the bosses are feeding them,” he says.
Susan Colomaio, Owner of Olivia’s Catering
Lovick’s is suffering the worst in catering, expecting to lose $18,000 over the next two months. And it’s even worse for full-time caterers. “People don’t realize April and October are the busiest months in eastern North Carolina,” Susan Colomaio tells me. She runs Olivia’s Catering, and held out hope that her busy spring calendar—twenty events, including three weddings—might stay busy, “but when the orders came down saying no more than 100, then no more than 50, then no more than 10, that basically cut us out.”
A silver lining is a contract to provide 150 reduced-price lunches a day for students at a local charter school. “Parents drive through to pick up for their kids, and this reduces the burden on them,” she says. She’s stretching every dollar she gets to provide hot lunches—barbecue chicken with mashed potatoes, green beans, and dessert, “because we want these kids fed properly in case it’s their only full meal a day.”
Colomaio sees the contract as a boost for her morale, not only for herself but also a neighborhood more familiar with businesses closing than opening. “It’s good,” she says, “just for everybody just to see people coming and going from the building.”
Scott Eldon’s seeing more people than ever coming and going from Upstairs at the Market, his months-old catering operation downtown.
“We’re doing family meals three night a week and we are rocking and rolling through all this,” he says. Eldon, a Johnson & Wales grad, moved home to Kinston after years working in the Caribbean and then for the local country club, but private dinners for that set hadn’t been enough to keep Upstairs running. Then the pandemic turned things around.
“We’re doing 100 people a night,” he says. “We put the menu on Facebook and Instagram, and my wife has an email list she compiled, and we’ve sold out every dish this week.” And when they come up for platters of blackened shrimp with corn and jasmine rice, or hamburger steak with balsamic onion gravy, they also make a run on the coolers in his downstairs commissary stocking up on pimento cheese and chicken salad.
“I hate to say it, but this saved our business,” he says.
Judy Johnson, Owner of Hawk’s Next Café
Judy Johnson’s found a way to make a new catering order work to her advantage at Hawk’s Nest Café, the revival of a mid-century soda shop where the town’s power brokers once held court.
"You could set your clock and the businessmen would be coming down here every morning," Johnson remembered of Standard Drug's glory days, when the fountain was ruled by the Drug Store Collegium, a not-so-secret society of North Carolina's political elite. Hawk’s Nest sits empty of power brokers today, but before the pandemic hit, Johnson had good luck cooking for churches on Wednesday nights, and prepping meals for the Down East Wood Ducks, Kisnton’s minor league ball club, all of them drawn in by her Hawk Sauce: a succulent Lexington-style elixir.
All of that’s on pause at the moment, but she’s found new customers in Kinston’s most invaluable citizens. “The doctor’s office is where it’s picking up,” Johnson says. “It’s the office that handles COVID-19 testing, so you have to suit all up, scrub all down, put on your mask, and hand them your food.”
She’s already made five trips, and doesn’t want to limit what they need to get through the day, so she opened up the catering menu to them. “It’s only eight or nine people, so what I do is cook enough taco bar or Salisbury steak for thirty or forty people and what’s left becomes our daily special,” she says.
Stephen Hill, Owner of Mother Earth Brewery and Distillery
Stephen Hill’s distillery is in the hand sanitizer business now. “It took a week to get it ramped up, and the first shipments went out last week,” he tells me over the phone from Phoenix, where he just touched down to visit family, throw his clothes in the trash, and take a hot shower. “There’s no fancy label on our bottles; we’re making it for a nursing home chain that’s got 6000 people in need.”
On better days, Kinston's resident philanthropist is a friendly face on the floor at Mother Earth Brewery and Distillery, glad-handing regulars when he's not refilling a glass in the tap room. Before he left town last week he was taking meetings from 20 feet away.
Of course he wasn’t always afraid to get his hands dirty. Hill got his start working for his father's construction company. One day on the job his uncle offered him a taste of Red Eye, beer balanced with the juice of his mother's canned tomatoes. Now Hill cans Red Eye as Homegrown, part of the local flavor guests can experience waiting for their tables at Chef.
Hill’s investment in Kinston only grew from there. Seven years ago he spotted a derelict mill village on the fringe of downtown and founded smART Kinston, a non-profit tasked with buying up and making over the old neighborhood as an artists colony—culinary arts included. His vision sprawled out from there, turning the town into the state’s largest public art showcase. A story-high steel abstract by the North Carolina artist Hanna Jubran mimics Hill's favorite yoga pose, bending its back over Mother Earth's box garden, while in the parking lot, a penny farthing welded by Miss Rose, the woman who taught Vivian Howard how to can preserves, serves as a bike rack.
A few years ago, the sculptor Thomas Sayre dedicated "Flue," a series of seven 30-foot-tall concrete tobacco barn facades, raised on the long vacant grounds of the former Brooks Tobacco Warehouse from which they were cast. The Brooks couldn't be saved, but Hill’s unwavering in his belief that Kinston’s present moment can still hold its future.