Cooper’s Barbecue celebrates 75 Years with SPCA fundraiser

sbarr@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2013 

  • If you go

    What: Clyde Cooper’s 75th anniversary fundraiser

    When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

    Where: 109 E. Davie St., Raleigh

    Cost: $5

— If Clyde Cooper walked into the barbecue restaurant that bears his name today – 75 years after he opened its downtown doors – he still would know the recipes for the short, simple menu and recognize some of the regulars in the straight-backed wooden booths.

That’s the way current owners Debbie and Randy Holt like it. As they prepare to mark the restaurant’s 75th anniversary, Debbie said, the late founder’s vision of a barbecue restaurant with great food and friendly conversation still guides them.

“I always want to celebrate him in everything we do,” she said.

On New Year’s Day in 1938, Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue opened for business on East Davie Street, where it has stood ever since. On Saturday, Cooper’s will hold a fundraiser for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Wake County to recognize the restaurant’s latest milestone. For $5, participants can listen to live music, sample barbecue from 10 pit masters and vote for their favorite.

G. Wesley Williams, 92, a former head of the Raleigh Merchants Association who is helping to orchestrate the birthday bash, said he’s thrilled to see a “treasure” of Raleigh stick around for so many years.

Williams made his first trip to Cooper’s when he was just 18, and rarely a week goes by that he doesn’t stop in for a taste of the eastern Carolina-style barbecue.

“I’ve never found any that’s better,” he said.

The only time in his life Williams didn’t make it to Cooper’s regularly was when he served as a first sergeant in the Army during World War II. He spent time at a training center in Texas and said the barbecue there just didn’t taste like home.

Williams remembers his friend Cooper as a down-to-earth man who would work the cash register and chat with his customers as he rang them up.

Stop in now, and you’ll find Debbie and Randy filling that same role. “They do a good job. It’s a labor of love,” Williams said.

‘A family affair’

Cooper’s daughter, Joyce Strother, was a teenager when the restaurant opened. At that time, barbecue sandwiches sold for 15 cents. She remembers the long days her father put in to get the restaurant off the ground. By the mid-1940s, business was solid, she said, and for nearly 50 years, Cooper and a rotating cast of relatives and friends kept the place humming.

“It was a real family affair,” she said.

In 1988, Cooper sold the business to Tony Moore. Before he died 10 years later at the age of 98, Cooper still made regular trips to the restaurant. That’s when Debbie first met him. She was working as a manager there, and she convinced him to share the secrets of his original recipes, which she filed away.

Debbie eventually left, but five years ago, she and Randy decided they wanted to run a restaurant. They were close to buying a place, but it just didn’t feel right. That’s when they found out Cooper’s was for sale.

The pair jumped at the chance to own the restaurant. Once it was theirs, they found the secret recipes Debbie had recorded. Some of Cooper’s recipes had changed over the years, and the Holts decided to bring back all the originals.

“We’re happy that we’re the ones that have it now, because I knew him,” Debbie said. “I knew what he stood for.”

She marvels at the ideas Cooper had, like starting a catering business. By the 1950s, Cooper’s was serving picnics for thousands as far away as Asheville. Black-and-white photos of those picnics hang in the restaurant now: the men in full suits and hats, the women in dresses and heels. Today, the Holts are booked for catering a year in advance.

A big move for Cooper’s

Some things have changed over the years, though. Debbie thinks Cooper would chuckle at the restaurant’s Facebook page. He might be surprised to know his barbecue once was served to Bono and the Edge on U2’s jet, or that Cooper’s competed earlier this year on the television show BBQ Pitmasters.

And other tough changes are coming.

Cooper’s will have to move when developers break ground on a new apartment tower. The Holts fought to stay where they are – and Debbie said she won’t really believe they’re leaving until they’re headed out the door – but overall, they’ve decided to embrace the change.

They’ve scouted a new, secret location, and they plan to bring as much of the old place as they can: the booths, the tables, the awards, the photos of mid-century Raleigh, the pig-shaped napkin holders and the hog’s head with three strands of beads hanging from its neck.

They’re optimistic they can make Cooper’s better than ever.

Strother said her father would be proud to know the restaurant has lasted for so long with so many loyal fans.

“People seem so happy when they’re there,” she said. “I guess they’re just hungry for barbecue.”

Barr: 919-836-4952

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