Restaurants may come and go on Franklin Street, the main drag of Chapel Hill, but one constant remains: the Carolina Coffee Shop.
Since 1922, the restaurant on East Franklin has been a go-to spot for brunch, a place to take visiting parents and a bar for a late-night drink. A historical marker outside the building notes with pride that it’s the oldest restaurant in town in its original location.
With its worn booths and blue-and-white tile floors, you might consider it the comfort food of Chapel Hill, particularly for former students.
“The coffee shop is just an icon,” said Richard Ellington, who was president of the Chapel Hill Historic Society for four years. “When you look at Chapel Hill, you think of it as a college town. It’s always nice to see something that hasn’t changed since they were there.”
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And the owners hope it will stay that way, at least until it turns 100.
But they might not be the ones to see it through the next five years. The restaurant is for sale.
The ownership group, whose members prefer not to be identified, has been quietly seeking new owners, said Mike DePersia, a broker with Triangle-based National Restaurant Properties, which is handling the sale. The owners decided recently to make their owner search public, DePersia said.
The prospective owner could join as a partner/investor or make a “clean buy out,” DePersia said.
The restaurant business is competitive, with new ones coming to town regularly or taking over existing spots, DePersia said. With February’s water shortage that shut down Franklin Street businesses on a basketball weekend, being an absentee owner can make it even tougher.
“The ownership doesn’t operate it on a day-to-day basis,” DePersia said. “They got to the point, let’s try to speed things up and get this sold. ... They just know they don’t have the time to operate it themselves.”
There is on-site management, and DePersia said the Carolina Coffee Shop will continue to operate business as usual for the foreseeable future.
The building once housed the university post office, according to the restaurant’s website, and also was a soda shop. It remained a soda shop under the Carolina Coffee Shop name until it became a restaurant in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Ellington said, it was known as one of two places where local activists met to hash out plans, whether it was anti-war, civil rights or another cause. The other was Harry’s down the street.
“Both of those places were famous, or infamous, depending on how you look at it, for their involvement,” said Ellington, a Chapel Hill native who returned home after college to work for the university. He retired in 2011 after 43 years in the IT division. “The Carolina Coffee Shop and Harry’s Delicatessen were centers of the communities that were interested in political change.”
Over the years, the restaurant has changed its emphasis. Sometimes it was more of breakfast-lunch place. Other times, it was more of a bar destination. In a college town, though, owners of any bar are sensitive to alcohol sales and underage drinking, DePersia said.
“Over the course of the years, it hasn’t changed identities,” DePersia said. “Some put a little more emphasis on the menu.”
The counter and bar remain from its soda shop days.
“People just feel comfortable there,” said Phil Lyons, treasurer of Preservation Chapel Hill, one of Chapel Hill’s other historical groups. His group, along with the Chapel Hill Historical Society, placed the historic marker outside the building some time in the past decade.
“The seating almost looks like it was put in in 1922.”
Lyons remembers spending many days there when he was a graduate student at UNC. “What endures is the food has always been good,” he said.
In the posting for the 2,854-foot-space, the owners note the potential to re-emphasize late-night business, or to provide catering, a location for private parties and outdoor dining.
The building is adjacent to an alley that leads to parking lots and a walkway connecting to campus. On the outside of the building, a well-known mural depicts university symbols and other figures related to current events.
DePersia said the new owners technically would be tenants of the university, which owns the building. The building houses offices as well as the Sugarland cupcake shop next door. According to a plaque from the Chapel Hill Historical Society, the buildings were donated in parcels to the university from 1947 to 1951 with “the stipulations that rent monies fund the North Carolina Collection at the library.” The sign says that arrangement is still in effect.
But all parties involved want to make sure the Carolina Coffee Shop reaches its 100-year anniversary in 2022, DePersia said, which is encouraging to both Ellington and Lyons.
“I would be sad to see it change, that’s for sure,” Ellington said. “If it changes hands, I hope they keep it intact at least for awhile. At least until 100.
“It would be nice to celebrate something like that.”
Interested owners are asked to contact DePersia at 919-460-0100.