Connie Pennell serves her customers the kind of country cooking she grew up eating in Johnston County: barbecued chicken, beef tips, fried squash, spaghetti.
So Parkside Cafe and Catering might seem more like Pennell’s personal dining room than a restaurant. She likes it that way, and so do her most loyal customers, who eat there three times a day, sometimes six days a week.
“I love to work with happy people,” Pennell says. “And most people, when they eat, they’re happy.”
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Parkside has been feeding the residents of the small town of Pine Level and travelers from nearby Interstate 95 since 2004.
The town, about 35 miles southeast of Raleigh, is home to about 1,900 people. While western Johnston County, nearest to Wake, has grown tremendously in recent decades, the land around Pine Level on the east side of the county has remained mostly rural.
Pennell, 55, grew up in the nearby unincorporated community of Brogden that is best known as the birthplace of actress Ava Gardner. Pennell’s father owned a tractor-repair business in Smithfield, and her mother worked in factories and cooked every meal for the family of five.
After high school, Pennell took some business and radiology classes at Johnston Community College but quickly realized she wasn’t meant to work in a hospital. She raised two children and eventually took a job with the county’s child support office, where she was responsible for making sure people who owed child support payments complied with judges’ orders.
“Everybody you came in contact with, most of them weren’t happy,” Pennell said.
Decorating cakes made Pennell happy. For years she had baked cakes for friends, and she learned more about the restaurant business by helping a local catering company.
A small restaurant space became available in 2002 in Micro, another tiny dot on the map along I-95. Pennell set up shop to serve down-home cooking and was so successful she outgrew the space in two years.
The current site, in the Park Plaza shopping center that also features a church, is larger and has two banquet rooms that get booked quickly for holiday parties. Parkside also does a lot of off-site catering for weddings and corporate events.
Fried squash is one of the most popular menu items. Pennell said it’s not pre-breaded, so it always tastes fresh. She takes pride in her vegetables.
“I think the key to that is seasoning,” she said. “We use a lot of ham hock.”
Workers also make their own potato salad, pasta salad, chicken salad and pimento cheese. A salad bar loaded with veggies offers a lighter option.
It’s important to offer plenty of variety to keep regular customers from getting bored, Pennell said. Each day features specials: beef tips and pork loin on Monday; barbecued chicken (her mother’s recipe) on Tuesday; spaghetti (also her mother’s recipe) and chicken pastry on Wednesday; turkey and country fried steak on Thursday; and seafood on Friday.
Pennell said she tries to use local products when she can. About 90 percent of the meat served at Parkside comes from Town Market, a small grocery store down the road. Hushpuppies are made with Sweet Betsy mix from Atkinson’s Milling Co. near Selma.
“I love those hushpuppies,” said Sabrina Bost, 42, who eats at Parkside a few times a month.
Then there’s pie. Lemon, chocolate, buttermilk.
Carl Adams, 67, stops by three or four times a week. He lives alone and makes most of his meals in his microwave oven, so he goes to Parkside for something substantial.
Adams is often served by 77-year-old Shirley Johnson, who has worked for Pennell for 13 years. She used to run a restaurant called Shirley’s in downtown Smithfield.
“Good food,” Adams said recently as he cut into his fried flounder. “Good people, good food.”
Pennell’s sister, Angie Roll, says she’s proud of her sister for creating a gathering space for their small town. A group of senior citizens meets regularly for breakfast and coffee.
“It means a lot to them – especially older people,” Roll said.
The family still gathers every Sunday for a big meal prepared by their mother, Jean. There are always two meat dishes: maybe pot roast and fried chicken or ham and lasagna.
Pennell learned so much from her mother.
“That’s where I got my great cooking from,” she said.
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, was published weekly from Memorial Day through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
If you go
Parkside Cafe and Catering is at 2176 U.S. 70-A in Pine Level, though it has a Selma mailing address. To get there from Raleigh, follow U.S. 70 east to Selma and veer left on U.S. 70-A. 919-965-4100. Open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. www.facebook.com/ParksideCafeandCatering/
On the menu:
▪ Dinner specials, $7.95
▪ Shrimp plate, $7.95
▪ Hamburger steak, $6.95
▪ Fried or grilled pork chops, $7.95
▪ Slice of pie or cake, $2