PITTSBORO — Vance Remick sat in the Pittsboro General Store Cafe on Thursday when the last of the lunch crowd typically might be lingering over a cup of coffee, iced tea or an afternoon conversation.
No customers were inside the restaurant that for much of the past decade offered a taste of a new Chatham County in the heart of the old. In the middle of the historic and traditional Southern town, the cafe catered to people who favored organic food, live music and progressive politics.
"We've even been called the 'communists' place,' " Remick said with a smile.
The business ground to a halt the night before when Remick, a co-owner, and other investors had to make a difficult financial decision.
In the throes of bankruptcy proceedings and unable to raise $30,000 to help get them through January and February, slow months in the restaurant business, Remick and the nearly two dozen investors decided to shutter a place that had been a hub of all things Pittsboro. "It's like I've been pushing this rock up the hill for the last couple of years, and it's just right up there at the top, but I just couldn't push it over," Remick said Thursday afternoon as his wife and a friend took paintings and other works by local artists off the walls.
The art works, many of which were displayed on consignment, helped create the artsy atmosphere. Remick says that atmosphere worked for him and against him as he tried to establish a place in Chatham County that respected established ideas and traditions while offering something different.
'It was family here'
"We're a little more artsy and a little more liberal," said Remick, 63, a Minnesota native who grew up in Texas and Oregon. He lived in Montana, western Massachusetts and Chapel Hill before joining the migration south into a county that was drawing many developers with big growth plans before the recession.
In 2008, before the recession stunted that growth, Remick and his investors expanded the General Store Cafe just east of the downtown Pittsboro traffic circle -- a project that cost nearly $1.4 million.
A stage was built for music and other entertainment.
More tables and a well-stocked bar were added.
But the growth did not come, and the recession was hitting people hard in the pocketbook, forcing many to sit down to meals at their kitchen tables instead of going out on the town for breakfast, lunch, supper or late-night drinks and snacks.
In August, the cafe investors started bankruptcy proceedings in federal court.
The expansion debt was an obstacle to financial health, and the investors were divided on the direction the business should take as it moved into the next decade.
On Wednesday, after dishing up plates of organic ravioli and sauce, fish tacos and the standard Pittsburritoes for the customers, Remick gathered the employees, 45 in all, and let them know the bad news.
For months, Remick had been paying them late, asking them to take on more work with hopes of weathering the financial woes.
"They've been troupers," Remick said.
In addition to removing the art from the walls, the Remicks on Thursday also were gathering things they could sell so they could make payroll. "It was a family here," Joyce Remick said.
'Cute place' took work
The Remicks got into the restaurant business in Pittsboro on a bit of a whim about a decade ago. The two had been investigating the possibility of opening a place in Meadowmont in eastern Chapel Hill. But they couldn't make the numbers work. About the same time, Joyce Remick discovered a "cute place" - the general store just east of the downtown Pittsboro traffic circle - that was for sale.
The Remicks decided to invest in the business with some friends. Neither had any idea at the time how involved they would be with running the business. They had planned to be silent partners. Vance Remick had planned to do design work, the profession he had practiced most of his life.
But soon he and his wife realized they had to be on the site, day and night. He had to learn financing, public relations, employee relations, how to fix toilets and other handyman work, the science of refrigeration and the mysteries of how to stock restaurant pantries.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Remick said. "If you say, 'Go learn how to be a rocket scientist,' that would be a piece of cake."
It was unclear what would become of the General Store Cafe. Remick had been meeting with prospective buyers throughout a day that was sad, but in a sense cathartic.
"I'm personally absolutely convinced that this place will be reinvented," Kevin Furini, one of the investors, said. "It will be back up. It's pretty much the only game in town in terms of entertainment."