Life Stories

Life Stories: Bob Fowler paved way for Triangle's foodie culture

CorrespondentAugust 18, 2013 

  • Born: July 24, 1935

    Education: Graduates from Chapel Hill High School in 1953, goes on to major in economics at UNC-Chapel Hill and graduates as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1957. While in college he is in the ROTC program and following graduation serves two years in the U.S. Navy.

    Family: Wife Karen, daughters from his first marriage, Sonya Fowler and Alexis Fowler Smith, grandchildren Rebecca and Joseph Gattis

    Fowler’s: Started by his grandfather in 1925 in Chapel Hill, a second location opens in Durham around 1940. The original location closes in 1975, and in 1977 they phase out staple grocery items and sell exclusively fine foods. Fowler’s moves from Roxboro Road in Durham to the location in Brightleaf Square in 1981. The Fowlers sell the business in 1998.

    Died: July 3

Although local menus commonly feature Gruyère, Swiss Emmenthaler and Gouda-topped burgers these days, someone had to start that trend. Someone had to be first to import brie from France, and have the means to ripen it so it would present perfect freshness when eaten. Someone had to be the first to stock Lindt chocolate and Gevalia coffee, take risks on new wines from California and appreciate the differences between Dijon and stone-ground mustards.

That person was Bob Fowler, and he accomplished those feats at Fowler’s Gourmet.

Though the specialty food store bearing his name closed years ago, his legacy remains as one of the earliest people to elevate the Triangle’s food culture – a culture now nationally lauded. Though his family said he hated the word, he was a “foodie” of the purest sort – and unbeknownst to most, a disappointed writer. He died last month at age 77.

“I truly believe that they were the cornerstone of food in Durham,” Ben Barker said of Fowler and his wife, Karen. After they wed in 1980, the Fowlers ran the store together seven days a week until they sold it in 1998.

Barker and his wife owned the acclaimed Magnolia Grill in Durham for 25 years, and worked closely with Fowler along the way. Among other gestures, he allowed them access to his commercial meat grinder so they could make their own sausages.

Their relationship with Fowler’s began long before, at the original location in Chapel Hill, when the Barkers both worked at the French restaurant La Residence.

“I bet we were there once a day getting stuff for the La Residence menu because it was the only place to buy anything of interest,” Barker said.

Fowler’s was founded by Bob’s grandfather in 1925 and in its original iteration was a grocery store in Chapel Hill known for high-quality foods. When his father became ill, Bob left a promising writing career, his wife said, to help with the family business. He had a publisher interested in a novel he’d written, and all it needed was some editing.

The draft of that novel haunted him the next 40 years.

“It’s about coming of age in Chapel Hill,” Karen Fowler said. “A high school student who plays football and reads Tolstoy, which is what he did.”

‘He brought cheese’

In his retirement he was able to write again, and his wife is unearthing the short stories he kept private as she continues to go through his belongings.

“A lot of things show, let your conscience be your guide. And I think that’s the way he lived his life,” she said. “He was honest and good.”

Though he may not have been the next Hemingway professionally, he was able to channel that interest somewhat through the ads he wrote. His wife points to a personal favorite – an ad in which a crazed man is sticking his tongue onto a large wedge of cheese, underneath the words: “Your Father is a Freak! And His Father’s Day Gift is at Fowler’s Gourmet in Brightleaf Square … Mustard freak, chocolate freak … ” – the list goes on. The store was always holiday-centric, and was one of the only places for ages where Kosher foods were readily available.

Locals recall the way he took his time helping customers, freckling the conversation with a cheeky joke and avoiding the topics of religion and politics.

“They made me feel like I was at home in Durham,” said a tearful Scott Howell, chef and owner of Nana’s and a Magnolia Grill alum.

If a customer wanted it, Bob Fowler made sure to get it. Fowler’s claimed to be the first retail account for importer Dean & DeLuca. It was the first to stock everything from Dannon yogurt to frozen shepherd’s pie from the United Kingdom.

“If you knew anything about food and wine and you appreciated it at all, you went there at least once a week. He brought cheese – real cheese – to this area,” Howell said.

After the Fowlers sold the shop, the new ownership moved it to a larger space across the street from Brightleaf for its final few years. In its place is now Parker & Otis, another specialty food shop (and restaurant) honoring the spirit of what Fowler started by stocking chocolates, wine and cheeses with gusto. Even now, some 15 years after Bob and Karen sold the business, the culinary cognoscenti speak of his impact with reverence.

“It was a great store and really ahead of its time. If you were to take it and plop it right down today, it would still be as equally great a store,” Barker said.

As for his other legacy, Karen Fowler is working on transcribing the tattered paper copy of his novel onto a computer. She wants to see whether there’s still any interest out there about a Chapel Hill boy who plays football and reads Tolstoy.

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