RALEIGH — Pork Chop Shop fans, this is the last year to sit down at this beloved institution to enjoy a vinegary chopped barbecue sandwich or a pork loin plate at the N.C. State Fair.
The N.C. Pork Council has been running the 178-seat restaurant during the fairs now-11-day run for a quarter century. But the councils executive director Deborah Johnson said its time to move on.
Johnson said a number of factors went into the decision to end the Pork Chop Shop, which was started in 1988, a year after the pork industry launched the highly successful The Other White Meat ad campaign.
State officials saw the Pork Chop Shop as an opportunity to leverage that brand at the State Fair and raise money for the council. Having succeeded at those aims, Johnson said the council wants to think about other ways it can be a presence at the fair, possibly hosting cooking demonstrations or debuting new food products.
Another key factor is that Rick Garrett wants to hang up his apron as the executive cook at the Pork Chop Shop.
As long as the Pork Chop Shop has been in existence, Garrett or his uncle has been cooking the pork loins. Garrett, 62, of Liberty inherited the job from his uncle Roger, who was recruited to be the head cook for the Pork Chop Shop when it started. Garretts uncle was a competitive barbecue cook who had won the pork councils whole hog state championship. Uncle and nephew cooked together at the Pork Chop Shop for four years. When his uncle retired five years ago, Rick took over and recruited his brother Tom and his son-in-law Jason Rivenbark to be his sous chefs.
At Friday lunchtime, with a line of customers outside, the men were busy cooking in the back. Rick Garrett sliced pork loin for the buffet, and Rivenbark and Tom Garrett switched off frying hush puppies in bubbling oil.
Among those in line was Marti Spalding of Raleigh, Dale Millar of Archer Lodge and Effie Carroll of Holly Springs. The women have been regular customers at the Pork Chop Shop for years.
Upon hearing it was the last year, Spalding cried out: Nooooo!
This is were we come for a dependable lunch, Millar said.
Theyre going to disappoint a lot of people, Carroll added. Thats a part of the fair: Eastern North Carolina barbecue.
Even Tom Garrett is sad to see it end. On Friday morning, he asked Ann Edmondson, the pork councils director of communications, Are we going to have a reunion or something?
Quite an undertaking
Although head cook at the Pork Chop Shop is a paid job, its quite an undertaking. Rick Garrett starts setting up the Monday before the fair. He installs the lights, the plumbing, the gas lines. He drives to Greensboro to pick up a refrigerated truck on loan from Neeses Country Sausage to hold perishable foods. He oversees more than 200 volunteers who work at the Pork Chop Shop during the course of the fair. (The volunteers include pork producers, those who work in related industries, even N.C. State students, including young men who belong to the agriculture fraternity.)
Rick Garrett and his relatives also have to know how to fix things because, as he joked Thursday: Theres something broke every year. One year, it was the hot water heater, which they had to replace. On Friday, a fan inside the Pepsi machine was acting up and had to be repaired.
You have to do more than cook, said Rick Garrett, who works 14-hour days during the fair.
Tom Garrett added: Its a long time until next Monday.
The mens efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Pork Chop Shop got a mention in The New York Times in 2006 when Road Food writers Jane and Michael Stern wrote about state fair foods from across the country. About the N.C. State Fair, they wrote: Of the several states that claim to be Americas barbecue capital, North Carolina is the most convincing. Have doubts? Go to the fairs pork chop shop and have a plate of smoke-laced pork loin with a side of hush puppies. End of debate.
The Garrett brothers take their commitment to the Pork Chop Shop very seriously.
Two years ago, Rick Garrett was driving to pick up the Neeses truck before the fair. That drive would take him past his 85-year-old fathers house. He noticed his brother, Tom, pulling into the driveway and so he pulled in, too.
Tom hadnt been able to reach their father, William Bill Garrett, and was worried. When they got inside, they discovered their father had had a heart attack. Their father went to the hospital. Rick went back to the fair. Tom didnt come to the fair until Saturday.
The brothers took one night off to visit their dad in the hospital. A friend came to cook in their place the next morning. When their dad died before the fair was over, the brothers didnt even discuss leaving the Pork Chop Shop. The family scheduled the memorial service for after the fair.
Our daddy always taught us, Rick Garrett said, if we made a commitment, we were to keep that commitment.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl