Campbell’s Diner wasn’t built to last.
Dora Ann Campbell, its namesake, purchased the single-wide trailer in 1971 after she quit her job at Cornell Dubilier Electronics, which once had a plant in Fuquay-Varina. Her father ran a restaurant, too, among the first in town, and it was her turn to do the same.
She parked the trailer a few miles out of town on N.C. 42 and started serving breakfast and barbecue sandwiches. But in 1974, someone told her about a piece of land in town, so she moved the trailer onto the bare-dirt lot on North Main Street, where it sits today, and paid $45 a month to occupy the land. She added a dining room to the back, and then, at least, it was a double-wide.
“I never spent a lot of money on it because I didn’t know how long I would be there,” said Campbell, now 86.
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Somehow, the trailer has persisted as one of few prominent reminders of Fuquay-Varina’s small-town past, before things like traffic and development were major concerns. But at the end of the month, on May 27, Campbell’s Diner is closing for good.
The diner has been known as a place to get a square meal, complete with made-from-scratch pastries and fresh vegetables, and at a good price. These days, it’s recognized in magazines and on travel shows as a distinctly Southern destination, but Campbell’s first became popular as a place people went, simply because they needed something to eat.
“At one time, the only people who came in here were just farm people in their bib overalls,” said Jim Neely, a Campbell’s regular and local businessman who remembers when the diner opened. He came down from Raleigh as a young man to work in the tobacco fields around Fuquay-Varina.
“If you just listen, which I do, you hear New Jersey; you hear Michigan and New York and California,” Neely said. “You didn’t used to hear that. All you heard was the Southern drawl.”
Many of the regulars at Campbell’s are older folks who come for the community, but also for a taste of the way things used to be: check and cash only. Tax included on menu prices. Waitstaff who know your name, and more.
“But it’s a good knowing,” said Mary Ann Thomas, Campbell’s daughter. “It’s not gossip and that kind of thing.”
‘A state of mourning’
Audrey Smale, a waitress at Campbell’s since the day it opened, said some of the regulars “had tears in their eyes” when she broke the news to them. As of last week, the diner hadn’t made a public announcement about its closing date, but word was starting to trickle out.
“We’re in a state of mourning,” confirmed Larry Summerlin, who has been coming to Campbell’s for the last 10 years. He makes single-string banjos out of Spam cans — “can-jos,” he calls them – and keeps one hanging on the wall in Campbell’s so he can serenade the dining room when he comes in to eat.
“When they told me they were closing, I took it down,” he said. “I’ve had it hanging up here about three or four years.”
Smale, for her part, is devastated. The 84-year-old waitress helped Campbell open the diner 45 years ago and never left.
“I stayed with her because she’s my friend,” Smale said. “It’s just like being with your family. I can’t imagine not being here. I’m going to have to quit and stay home and get old. It’s gonna be bad.”
Family comes up a lot when people talk about working and eating at Campbell’s, and the diner’s operating structure echoes that refrain.
Thomas worked with her mother for 40 years, waiting on customers and frying hushpuppies. She still brings her mother meals from the diner; each calls the other her best friend. Michelle Dunn, the restaurant’s manager, had just learned she was pregnant when she started working at Campbell’s 17 years ago. That daughter, Rheanna, now works alongside her in the diner as well.
“It’s not like a job,” Dunn said. “It’s like you’re coming into your home.”
It’s not like a job. It’s like you’re coming into your home.
Michelle Dunn, longtime restaurant manager
‘This is it’
Campbell has been in poor health the last three years. A couple of regulars reckon that’s why the diner’s closing, but no, Campbell said, that was her employees’ decision. She’s had a couple of health scares – she returned from her latest hospital visit in late April – that have made them consider closing the place more than once before now.
Dunn is having health issues of her own, and head cook Millie Tvrdá, who came to Fuquay-Varina by way of New York City and the Czech Republic, said she’s ready to return home. Thomas said she didn’t want to be working at the restaurant until she’s 80, which is what her mother did.
And health inspectors have become increasingly prickly in their inspections of the trailer, which has been grandfathered in under older health codes, Dunn said. The employees keep it clean, but she said the trailer is deteriorating in ways that are invisible to customers.
“It’s so many things,” Thomas said. “God was telling us, ‘This is it.’ ”
On top of all that, she doesn’t think there would be anyone able or willing to do the diner justice once she, Smale, Tvrdá and Dunn are gone. The Campbells have allowed outside management to run the diner a few times over the years, usually with unfavorable results.
“It would bottom out, and we’d have to take it back,” Thomas said. “Someone would come run it and they’d try and change everything and they couldn’t make it. Michelle is the only one that’s been able to hold it together and run it for us.”
That hasn’t stopped Neely, who owns Fuquay Coins & Jewelry on Raleigh Street, from trying to save the diner. He said he’s talked to a local bank about opening a trust fund and approached members of the town’s police and fire departments about raising money to fix up the trailer.
Thomas said she appreciated the gesture, but she, Dunn and Smale agree the diner couldn’t be saved. The trailer is beyond repair, they said. And besides, Campbell doesn’t own the property, which means they couldn’t build anything new on it.
Dunn said she’ll take the summer to help her father around the house. Smale said she’ll tend to her 2-acre lawn, which she still mows herself. Thomas, who boards dogs for a living, will be able to focus on her business and taking care of her mother.
And the customers? Summerlin said he’ll probably drive up to Raleigh’s D&S Cafeteria or go to the Golden Corral in town. They’ll have options, certainly, but nothing quite like Campbell’s.
“When Golden Corral opened and people went down there, it made me mad, sort of, because they left all of a sudden,” Campbell said. “But they came back. They couldn’t get the food like we cooked it.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan