There’d be no sense in trying to hide good chicken from North Carolinians, even in a restaurant whose name – Keaton’s Barbecue – belies its main attraction.
But the acclaim lavished upon Keaton’s and its famous barbecue chicken is more than Kathleen Murray bargained for when her family asked her to come help with the restaurant back in the 1980s. With her son and mother in tow, Murray left her job as a nurse in Bay Shore, N.Y., and moved to the family farm in rural Rowan County.
“I had bought a new ranch house in walking distance from the beach, and I was making a career for myself,” she said. “The only thing I’m proud of is that my uncle chose me, from all the other nieces and nephews. I didn’t expect all this to happen. I didn’t expect to be famous. I didn’t expect to be on TV. I just came to help.”
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Her uncle, B.W. Keaton, opened the restaurant in 1953 on a rural road about 10 miles east of Statesville. Keaton’s was shuttered for two years after B.W. died in 1989, until Murray succumbed to pressure from customers and family and opened it again in 1991. Her son, who goes by “Lefty,” works with her there now.
Most of Keaton’s customers, who sometimes queue in the parking lot 30 minutes before opening, are there for the chicken. Or, more particularly, the smoky-sweet sauce it’s slathered in.
“You could put a possum in that sauce and it’d come out good,” said Daryl Templeton of Union Grove, who was waiting with his father for Keaton’s to open on a recent Saturday evening.
“I started coming here back in the ’60s, probably,” his father, James Templeton, added. “You could guess what was in it, but Mr. Keaton wouldn’t tell you.”
Multiple customers, including the Templetons, said they’d heard Keaton had received offers – ranging in rumored amounts from “beaucoups of money” to “a million dollars, cash” – for the sauce recipe, but that Mr. Keaton refused them all.
“After our first visit 25 years ago, we were determined to duplicate the sauce at home,” said Jim Buchanan, who came from Conover with his wife Peggy to introduce some family friends to Keaton’s. “We worked on it for three years, but we never got it.”
Besides sauce-smothered chicken, customers can choose from a standard menu of main dishes and Southern sides – macaroni, potato salad, baked beans and slaw.
Daryl Templeton recommends washing it all down with Keaton’s sweet tea, especially because it comes with a full pitcher good for several refills of the styrofoam cups Keaton’s provides. If that runs dry, there’s a cooler full of yet more tea on the front counter.
But it’s the sauce – and the mystery of its provenance – that has drawn attention from state and national media outlets, including Our State magazine, the Splendid Table, and WBTV Charlotte’s Carolina Camera.
Murray calls herself a “private person,” and her management style suggests an effort to limit fame’s demands. Her sense of duty to her family is strong but strictly defined in what it encompasses.
“I’m just trying to keep the family business going,” she said. “That’s what I’m here for. It’s not about pride or money or nothing like that, you know what I mean?”
The low, cinderblock building was expanded in the late 1980s to include a dining room, but not much else has been done to accommodate growing crowds.
Signs in the restaurant tell customers not to take photos of the staff and warn against swearing and loud talking. Keaton’s used to limit customers to two drinks; now it doesn’t serve alcohol at all.
Sometimes pork barbecue is on the menu, but on a recent weekend none was available. And when Keaton’s runs out of chicken for the night, usually sometime between 7:30 and 8 p.m., that’s that: Anyone still in line will have to try again tomorrow.
One morning last week, eager customers were dismayed to find a handwritten sign taped to the window out front. Keaton’s was closed. The sign said there was a problem with the water line and asked folks to call back in the late afternoon to find out if the restaurant would open for dinner.
“We don’t have to have water,” said Chris Nix, a Yadkin Valley Telecom employee who, along with several coworkers, was among those turned away. “We just want the chicken.”
Richard Osborne of Elkin, who’s been coming to Keaton’s since the late 1970s, said this sort of unpredictability is part of the charm.
“Matter of fact, sometimes they’ll close for a month and not tell you,” Osborne said.
Murray has no plans to retire “before it’s all over,” but she said she’s been talking with family up in Virginia recently about what might happen to the place after she’s gone. She said she’s swamped with offers – from her own lawyer, even – to buy the place, but that she’d rather see it shut down than turned into a chain.
“Most everybody wants part of this, and I’m not saying that to be proud,” Murray said. “I’m saying that because it’s the truth, and I have to deal with it. The chicken’s good, and that’s why we’re in the limelight. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan
If you go
Keaton’s Barbecue, 17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland. 704-278-3048. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to roughly 8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. keatonsoriginalbbq.com.
From the menu:
- Chicken: Available in half or whole orders, for $8.99 and $17.98 respectively. Comes with buns for those who prefer chicken in sandwich form – or need something to soak up the extra sauce. Quarter orders of either white or dark meat are also available.
- Hot vinegar spicy slaw provides a delicious variation on the expected. Can be ordered on the side for an extra $1.57, in a 16 ounce cup for $2.72, or in a 32 ounce cup for $5.64.
- Pork barbecue costs $4.75, if available.
- Other sides of note include loaded baked potatoes, for $2.79, and macaroni and cheese, for $1.57.
- A bottle of Keaton’s Barbecue sauce itself costs $5.56 for those who want to replicate the experience at home.