One of Durham’s barbecue institutions will serve its last meal on Friday.
“The economy,” explained Wilma Dillard, owner of the restaurant bearing her family’s surname. “The economy. I can’t keep up.”
The business at 3921 Fayetteville St. began as a mom-and-pop grocery in 1953; next door, in what is now a dining room, Dillard’s mother ran a beauty salon. About 10 years after the store opened, it began selling barbecue sandwiches. A transition to full-fledged food service followed.
Dillard herself graduated from Hillside High School and North Carolina Central University before becoming a special education teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School. She joined the family business some 14 years ago following her father’s death.
“I grew up here,” Dillard said as the restaurant’s lunch shift drew to a close Tuesday afternoon. “I thought I was grown up when I got here, but I had a lot to learn.”
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In between interviews with reporters and the regular business of running her restaurant, Dillard hugged, chatted and laughed with her customers.
“People don’t just come here for food,” the owner said. “We tried to be a friend in the community.”
The business has five employees, including Dillard herself. She decided last year to close but needed time to wind down. Customers first got the news on Monday.
“People [are] losing jobs and probably eating at home now, and I — I’ve just found it difficult to raise my prices,” Dillard said. “You know what I’m saying — it’s a Catch-22.”
Dillard hopes to return to teaching. She hasn’t yet decided what to do with the 4,150-square-foot restaurant, notable for the distinctive red, yellow and black pattern on its tympanum, and the nearly 0.9-acre property on which it sits. County tax records value the building and land at close to $279,000.
Some of the land is expected to be taken by the state to help Riddle Road form a more traditional intersection with Fayetteville Street. Currently travelers on Riddle must turn onto Fayetteville before picking up Riddle again.
“That didn’t help,” Dillard said, adding: “It kind of helped me make my decision.”
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That decision left customers disappointed to hear the news.
Andre Dent is a preacher and truck driver from Gatesville who resided in Durham for about a decade.
“I’m very familiar with Wilma Dillard and her father and the good food,” Dent said. “When I lived here, I ate here regularly.”
He recalled buying the restaurant’s house barbecue sauce for cookouts. His favorite meal from the restaurant: greens and hushpuppies with hot sauce.
“I love the fact that it’s an African-American business and I can support my own — the tradition or food that I was brought up to eat,” Dent said. “I’m going to miss that.”
“It’s going to be a vacancy in the community,” Diane Evans, a 70-year-old retired nurse, said over lunch Tuesday. Home-cooked food and friendly people were her favorite things about Dillards, she said.
“You get fresh food and the food is tasty and the company in here, they are friendly,” agreed sister Margie Evans, a 68-year-old retired teacher.
“I wish they could stay,” Margie Evans added. “Cause you don’t find cooks like this.”
Deborah Jones, a nurse, went into Dillards for an order to go without registering the sign on the door announcing the restaurant’s closing. “I’m flabbergasted,” she said upon hearing the news.
When Jones lived in New Jersey, she would order Dillards barbecue by mail. A cousin would get shipments to her home in Baltimore.
“It’s a loss to the community, I think,” Jones said.
Among Tuesday’s diners was George Habel, a vice president with the Durham Bulls. Since the 1980s, when the team was at the old Durham Athletic Park, Dillards has been the only barbecue that the team served.
“Her passion for the restaurant, for the family, for the community is probably the glue that held our relationship together, more so than the BBQ,” Habel said of Wilma Dillard.
Although he claimed to eat Dillards barbecue “constantly,” Habel’s favorite dishes at the actual restaurant are vegetables. “I can’t find any greens and okra at American Tobacco,” he joked.
Dillard’s Bar-B-Q will be open from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday.