The Legacy of Crook’s Corner and a Disastrous 2020

The Legacy of Crook’s Corner and a Disastrous 2020

After 40 years in business, the Chapel Hill restaurant and institution, Crook’s Corner, announced Wednesday June 9th that they were closing permanently. It’s an incalculable loss to the North Carolina culinary scene, as a restaurant known nationwide for its food, friendly atmosphere, and of course…the shrimp and grits, which was invented at Crook’s Corner. Crook’s Corner wasn’t just any restaurant, it was an inspiration.

2020 and even into 2021, the pandemic has not been kind to many restaurants. Tyler’s Taproom in Carrboro…gone. Elmo’s Diner in Carrboro…gone. Jim’s Hot Dogs & Hamburgers in Graham, also around for 40 years…gone. Pittsboro Roadhouse & General Store…gone. And that’s just a few I can name right off the top of my head without googling it. Just a walk down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill looks different these days, with places like Lotsa Pizza and Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe shuttered.

There have been countless more, and every single one is a loss to the community and the culinary world. But the closure of Crook’s Corner feels a little different, perhaps because it wasn’t just the longevity, but its direct influence to places like the Saxapahaw General Store and the Eddy Pub here in Saxapahaw. Owner of the General Store, Jeff Barney, a southern transplant from Michigan, was influenced and inspired in his own culinary career by Crook’s Corner. The shrimp and grits that we serve so many of every weekend was Jeff’s interpretation of the dish first born in Chapel Hill.

From Crook’s Corner on Instagram:

“Effective Immediately:
Dear Crook’s Family and Friends,
For nearly 40 years Crook’s Corner has served and been welcomed by the people of Chapel Hill and the UNC community, we sincerely thank you for your decades of support. It has been an incredible honor to both serve our community in our place and serve Chapel Hill’s culinary ambassador to the wider world.
With an incredibly heavy heart I must share the news that we are closing. The position we find ourselves in, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis is no longer tenable.
The place Rachel Crook built in the 1940’s on the corner of Franklin and Merritt Mill road has had many lives. It holds the memories of thousands of celebrations and pivotal career moments for too many of us to count. On behalf of generations of Crook’s Corner staff, we thank you for your many years of support.”

It’s absolutely heartbreaking. And as with most great losses in life, those who have survived wondered how and why— and to be honest, I don’t know how places like Crook’s Corner and Elmo’s, who would be packed to 100% capacity every Saturday and Sunday, didn’t make it through the pandemic, while the General Store did. We honestly didn’t think we would. I mean, we all hoped of course, but a year ago, things were real touch-and-go. We had to let go of a bunch of staff, we had to redo how we did a lot of our business. We added local delivery, and online grocery ordering. I’ve also read that over the past year, many rural restaurants and grocery stores have weathered the storm much better, and even seen a slight increase in business as people have been moving and traveling out of cities into the country due to the perception that rural areas are safer than crowded urban areas. I don’t know how much of that is true, but if it is, it means that Saxapahaw…maybe it was just dumb luck.

Because despite the awards and accolades (head chef Bill Smith, James Beard Awards finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast!), Crook’s Corner was a family and an experience. It’s something that we have humbly tried to replicate here in Saxapahaw, and we do our damn best, and in that way, we hope that the long, deep legacy of Crook’s Corner can be immortalized, that its grand influence on what it means to operate a hometown restaurant will be felt for many generations to come.

It had a history, and a wild one at that. Named for the first tenant of the space in the 1940s, Rachel Crook, it started as a cafe and fish market, and was such until Crook’s unsolved murder in 1951. In 1978, the space was remodeled, and turned into the Southern barbecue and comfort food establishment we all knew and love by Gene Hamer and Bill Neal, and named Crook’s Corner in honor of the original tenant. And despite its perseverance over all this time, it couldn’t survive the fallout of 2020.

Even as the US is quickly getting back to some kind of normal, the repercussions of the covid-19 pandemic will be felt for years, if not decades to come, not just in North Carolina, but around the world. Whatever your opinions on how whatever politician handled the pandemic, the truth is that there were no easy or good answers. In every state, in every country and territory on Earth, there was every kind of response, from full lockdowns to no restrictions at all, and yet everyone took a hit in one way or another. Hell, in places like India, Brazil, Sweden and Argentina, things are still very far from being normal.

Ultimately, we’re not here to discuss the tactics of handling a pandemic, we’re talking about the loss of a mentor, or as our friends at The Eddy Pub put it, “our hospitality elder”. Places like Crook’s Corner and Elmo’s Diner helped to create places like The Eddy Pub and the Saxapahaw General Store. Their influence, generosity, guidance and advice will never be forgotten. Perhaps one day, another brilliant chef will take over the spot and continue the legacy, and the legend of Crook’s Corner will continue to live again in just one more of its many lives.