A pipe broke this winter, flooding Joyce and Family Restaurant in downtown Fuquay-Varina and forcing it to close for a few days. The snow hit soon after that, and the longtime downtown establishment was open only two days in two weeks.
Then equipment started breaking, and just like that, general manager Tim Staton found himself unable to pay the electric bill for Joyce’s, the Main Street restaurant that bears his mother’s name.
“It was just like dominoes,” said Joyce Staton, 66, while sitting outside her darkened restaurant Monday and alternately taking breaks to cry or field phone calls from customers offering support.
Joyce’s, which has been serving up soul food since 1997, is in danger of closing unless the owners come up with enough money for rent by Monday.
The Staton family had been given until early last week to pay their overdue rent of about $5,200. Tim Staton said after an online fundraiser and several weekends of selling food in the parking lot, they were able to give $3,000 to their landlord and get an extension through the weekend to come up with the rest.
They raised about $2,000 in the first two weeks, and another $2,000 between Monday and Wednesday, after their situation received media attention. Five people chipped in $730 on Wednesday morning alone.
“Good luck. My family ran a small business,” one donor wrote online. “They are the true backbone of America.”
Tim Staton, a 45-year-old Army veteran, left his job as an IT contractor at Fort Bragg two years ago to help with the restaurant after his father, James Lewis Staton, was diagnosed with cancer and no longer could handle the daily duties.
He said business had finally started picking up after a slow winter when the series of problems hit, and the family and their 10 employees were suddenly adrift. Once the lights went out, their income stopped, and they were unable to pay rent.
“If we can just get back in, I know we can make it,” he said.
‘Medicine on a plate’
Joyce’s is known regionally for its fried chicken, sweet potatoes and home cooking.
Judy Stephenson lives a few blocks away and said she has been coming there for 15 years for the food as well as concerts and Bible studies that “Miss Joyce” – as everyone calls her – hosted.
“It’s the best Southern cooking you can get anywhere, in my opinion,” Stephenson said. “We’ve been so lucky to have her here in Fuquay. ... Whether it’s that building or another building, we need her here in town.”
Katherine Brown, who lives outside of town, said she the line to get in should have been out the door.
“The food is wonderful,” Brown said. “I always felt like I was special ‘cause of the way she treated me.”
If she ever wanted something that wasn’t on the menu, Brown said Miss Joyce would cook it anyway.
“It was more than a restaurant,” Brown said. “She treated everyone like that. Fuquay doesn’t know what they’re missing.”
Indeed, Joyce Staton said, the restaurant might even have had more out-of-town customers than area residents.
Mary Scovall is one of them. The 61-year-old made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Wadesboro almost every week for what she calls “medicine on a plate” at Joyce’s.
“I always come for the best food, and the best person,” Scovall said.
Joyce Staton speaks with pride about how lawyers and judges from Harnett, Johston and Lee counties have come in for lunch, as well as local politicians and doctors. But she said she also would feed any homeless person who came in looking for a meal.
“That’s just how I was raised,” she said.
“We get every kind of people in here,” Tim Staton added. “It is a melting pot, I guess. White, black, Asian, rich, poor.”
Tim Staton said his mother, who was raised in Fuquay-Varina, always wanted to make it in town. And for almost 18 years, she did.
The hardest part of the last few weeks, Joyce Staton said, has been talking to customers too young to understand why she can’t keep cooking.
“This one little white girl, maybe 4 years old, she comes up to me crying, saying, ‘Miss Joyce I’m gonna miss you,’” Staton said, wiping back tears of her own.
Whatever happens with their current space, Tim and Joyce Staton said they want to keep the restaurant alive. They might just have to move somewhere else, where there are more people and traffic coming by every day.
“If we don’t have that building, I doubt if we’d stay at Fuquay,” Tim Staton said.
Their first priority is still to stay at that building, but he added that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll use the fundraiser money to start anew somewhere else.
Joyce Staton said she just wants to cook, no matter where she does it.
“It’s the only thing I’d ever want to do,” she said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran