For more than 35 years, Carolyn Artis has opened up her diner, The Coffee Pot, as soon as the first pot of coffee is ready, around 5:30 or 6 a.m.
On Aug. 29, she will brew her final pot and close her doors.
Artis, 70, explains her decision by pointing to the still-sluggish economy and her readiness to relax, although not completely retire.
She decided not to sell the restaurant because of the expense of bringing the diner up to the standards that a buyer – and modern buildings codes – would demand.
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After cooking her last lunch on Friday, Artis plans to work a part-time job, visit elderly friends and keep fit through exercise. She also plans to spend time with family. Artis has 12 children and 28 grandchildren. Her son Tyron Pearce worked in the restaurant for about 15 years.
The eatery on South Bright Leaf Boulevard attracted mostly locals, with a few out-of-towners. Artis and her three employees have prided themselves on knowing their regulars.
The waitresses are Patricia Scott, who has waited on tables for 27 years, and April Maupin, who has called the Coffee Pot home for about 14 years.
Like the staff, the menu has changed little over the years.
“Lots of coffee, maybe 90 cups a day,” Maupin said with a laugh. “Don’t ask me how many I’ve spilled.”
Recently, as Artis began to break the news to customers, many diners reacted in disbelief, teary-eyed, and some had trouble finishing their meals.
“Everybody’s family,” Maupin said. Artis recalled winter storms where customers would help serve if her employees could not make it to work.
On frantic days, the ladies have often find themselves sticking toast or the phone instead of the order ticket on the line. They have watched the neighborhood become quieter and their favorite customers age.
“We’ve had a lot of heartache over the last two years as we all have seen some of our favorite older customers pass away,” Maupin said with tears in her eyes.
In the early days, when she was a dishwasher, Artis would witness Ava Gardner’s entourage come in. She recalled that the favorite meal of Jack Gardner, Ava’s brother, was hamburger steak.
“Carolyn feeds the homeless, takes food to people that can’t get out of bed,” said Smithfield resident Darrell Weaver, a regular customer for the past 15 years. “She goes the extra mile.”
Artis has “adopted” many of her customers, some of whom call her mom. The youngest ones enjoy her funny-face pancakes. One, Richard, was a homeless man whom Artis came to know well. He called her “mom,” and when he moved away, he called her every holiday and Mother’s Day.
“Friday is going to be a tough day,” Artis said.
Maupin agreed. “It’s the end of an era,” she said.