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 Fowlers Gourmet.
Though the specialty food store bearing his name closed years ago, his legacy remains as one of the earliest people to elevate the Triangles 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 Fowlers 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.
Fowlers was founded by Bobs 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 hed written, and all it needed was some editing.
The draft of that novel haunted him the next 40 years.
Its 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 thats 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 Fathers Day Gift is at Fowlers 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 Nanas and a Magnolia Grill alum.
If a customer wanted it, Bob Fowler made sure to get it. Fowlers claimed to be the first retail account for importer Dean & DeLuca. It was the first to stock everything from Dannon yogurt to frozen shepherds 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 theres still any interest out there about a Chapel Hill boy who plays football and reads Tolstoy.