In the early hours of March 17, Barry Doyle and his restaurant’s manager loaded up a truck with comfort food and drove to downtown Raleigh, where firefighters spent hours battling a massive blaze that destroyed an apartment building that was under construction.
Doyle had long since stepped away from the day-to-day operations of his restaurant, Barry’s Café, because he had neuropathy, a nerve disorder. But helping first responders was one responsibility he couldn’t delegate.
Doyle and Rick DeAngelis, the manager, fed the firefighters cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, potato chips and drinks from the back of a truck.
Serving firefighters and other first responders was always important to Doyle, who died Friday, five days after his 64th birthday. Emergency workers were regulars at Barry’s Cafe in the Swift Creek Shopping Center on Jones Franklin Road in West Raleigh, and he was known to pack up food to take to crews working long hours.
The story of Doyle and his restaurant has been told over and over: After struggling its first couple of years, the café’s fortune took a turn for the better during an ice storm in 1994. Nearby highways were shut down, and the Swift Creek Volunteer Fire Department across the street had its hands full attending to traffic accidents.
“The restaurant was closed, but they called him up and said, ‘Barry, we’re cold and hungry. Can you do anything for us?’ ” said Mike Gerke, the current fire chief at Swift Creek. “That’s how it all started.”
Doyle put down the phone and rustled up a vat of coffee and about a dozen biscuits, thinking that would be enough. When he arrived at the scene of several accidents, he found scores of first responders.
So Doyle went back and brought more food, and then he went back again, and again. After that, first responders around Wake County came to know Doyle as a friend they could call up in a pinch, and Doyle never let them down.
Business boomed, and the café expanded, its walls increasingly laden with firefighting memorabilia sent from appreciative fire departments near and far. There are also countless photographs of folks who have dined there through the years.
Doyle started the Feed the Firefighters Foundation, a nonprofit that does what he did that day in 1994 and on so many days thereafter. During natural disasters or other times when first responders are especially busy, the foundation has supplied food and support.
Most recently, it collected donations of food, toiletries and other necessities at Barry’s Café and sent them to firefighters battling wildfires in Western North Carolina.
“Even when he wasn’t well, he had to help,” DeAngelis said. “That big forest fire we had out west three or four months ago, within 24 hours he’d gotten over $5,000 in donations and taken it up to the firefighters in the mountains.”
DeAngelis, who runs the restaurant with Doyle’s wife, Denise, said Doyle remembered the names of more than 3,000 customers and made a point of greeting them when they walked through the door.
“He said from the get-go that the secret to a successful restaurant was having first-rate, well-paid short-order cooks,” said Susan Leurich, who has been going to Barry’s about once a week nearly since the day it opened. “The food was always excellent. He was always there in the early days with a handshake or a hug for everybody.”
Bryant Woodall, a retired Raleigh fire chief who now volunteers with the Swift Creek department, remembers Doyle fondly.
“I’ve always thought Barry would have made a good firefighter himself,” Woodall said. “He obviously loved to help people, and he went out of his way to support us. For whatever reason, he just took to firefighters and couldn’t do enough, in his opinion, to help us.”
The restaurant has been open this week as its staff and regular customers mourn. Doyle’s friends say that’s what he would have wanted.
“You can tell, the last couple days – everyone’s here and still working hard and trying to do well, but you can tell there’s something missing, and everyone knows what it is,” Woodall said. “But they know that Barry would want them to keep things running.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan