Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque restaurant celebrates 75th birthday in downtown Raleigh

aweigl@newsobserver.comMarch 9, 2013 

— The aromas of wood smoke and pork fat beckoned as people lined up Saturday along Raleigh’s East Davie Street to take part in the 75th anniversary celebration of Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque restaurant.

The state’s oldest surviving barbecue restaurant opened New Year’s Day in 1938. The current owners, Debbie and Randy Holt, threw a party in an empty lot next door to celebrate the milestone.

“You know when you invite people to your party, you don’t know if they’re going to come,” said Debbie Holt from the stage during a short ceremony. Looking out at the crowd of thousands, Holt said, “I’m going to cry.”

Saturday’s event began at 11 a.m. with about 10 pit masters from across the state serving up ‘cue for an informal competition. A $5 entrance fee got patrons all the pork they could eat and a chance to vote for their favorite. Proceeds were donated to the SPCA of Wake County.

Among the cooks was Sam Jones, a third-generation pit master and owner of The Skylight Inn in Ayden. Jones got to know the Holts when he competed last year on “BBQ Pitmasters,” a television show on Destination America. Despite being competitors, Jones said, “Within 2 hours of being there, we were the best of friends.”

And so when the Holts asked him to come to Saturday’s event, Jones arrived Friday afternoon to start cooking.

Despite providing a dozen 120-pound hogs and 500 pounds of shoulders, the pit masters ran out of food by about 1 p.m., and the restaurant had to start sending out trays of chopped pork to serve the expectant crowds.

Shortly before 2 p.m., amateur pit master Cleve Folger of Cary, a friend of the Holts who agreed to cook for the event, was dishing up Cooper’s chopped ‘cue to a crowd that he was shocked to see had grown so large. “We had no idea,” Folger said. “It’s just been incredible.”

Randy Holt thought they would go through about 5,000 pounds of barbecue before the day was done.

The Holts are only the restaurant’s third owners. Debbie Holt got to know Clyde Cooper before he died in 1998.

Clyde Cooper, the son of a Wake County dairy farmer, borrowed $2,000 from an older brother to buy the barbecue restaurant in late 1937. When he opened it, a sandwich cost 15 cents and a plate cost 40 cents. (Today, a sandwich costs $3.25 and a plate costs $6.50.)

Cooper was known as a friendly gentleman who manned the restaurant’s cash register and often joked with his customers. “He talked more junk than a $2 radio,” Debbie Holt said.

Cooper also was good to his employees, sharing profits at the end of the year and taking them on trips to the beach.

Cooper retired from managing the restaurant in 1981, and a son-in-law took over. Seven years later, Cooper sold the business and the building to a father-and-son team, Alvin and Tony Moore. That’s when Debbie Holt worked at Cooper’s for five years in the early 1990s and met the restaurant’s namesake who came back to eat regularly. Debbie and her husband Randy bought the restaurant five years ago from Tony Moore.

The couple will have to move the restaurant when developers start building an apartment complex on their block of East Davie Street. But they plan to reopen and take much of the restaurant’s decor to the new location, including the wooden booths and a neon-pink pig clock.

Keeping Cooper’s as it always was has been the Holts’ business plan. Debbie Holt makes a point of telling longtime customers that she returned the recipes to the originals based on conversations she had with Cooper years ago.

At least one loyal customer told Debbie Holt on Saturday that he could tell the difference.

“I noticed a change in the Brunswick stew when you all took over,” said John Mitchell of Raleigh, who said Cooper’s is the best he’s ever eaten.

Sharing nothing, Debbie Holt replied: “If I was to tell you the secret to the Brunswick stew, it would blow your mind.”

Likely the restaurant’s most loyal customer is Wesley Williams, 92, who has eaten there once a week since it opened 75 years ago, except for three years during World War II when he served in the military. The restaurant with its wooden booths and black-and-white photographs on the walls looks pretty much the same as when Williams started eating there. That’s part of its charm for Williams.

“A barbecue place is supposed to be rustic,” Williams said. “It hasn’t changed in years. That’s good.”

Debbie Holt said Williams, who served as executive director of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association for 50 years, has spent the last three years planning Saturday’s celebration. “I think it’s a treasure,” he said. “Any small business that survives for 75 years, it calls for a celebration.”

Among those celebrating Saturday was Clyde Cooper’s daughter, Joyce Strother. She had come to see the celebration and at a booth inside the restaurant sat down to enjoy her menu favorites: “a barbecue sandwich and those skins,” referring to the deep fried pork skins.

Asked what her father would think about his restaurant’s survival and Saturday’s party, she said, “He’d be overwhelmed.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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