2 Weekender Friday, December 9, 1977
Coffee Shop is Chapel Hill institution
By KIMBERLY McGUIRE
Cars whir by in gleaming sunlight. A bus stops and people spill out onto
the busy street. The cars halt for pedestrians in the crosswalk. A bicyclist
weaves through the traffic. Shoppers walk and peer in the shop window
panes and move on.
The door is propped open to let in the cool afternoon air. Light streams
into the dim shop. It is quiet and empty. The floor is bare and chairs are
stacked on top of the tables. The "closed" sign hangs outside.
In an hour, a line will begin to form outside. "I know most of the people
who come here by now," says Bill Smith as he gestures with his cigarette
holder. "We've had all sorts of characters." He has worked at the Carolina
Coffee Shop for seven years, off and on. "I started as a salad boy in the
morning and a bus boy at night. Then I was baker for a year. I used to have
to bake bread and I'd never have a day off because I'd bake 13 racks a day
and we'd use them all."
Now Smith is the Coffee Shop's head waiter and a fixture in the place. "I
guess this is my fourth appearance. I always come and go. This place is great
for that. People work and leave and come back. I'm a lifer my profession
is divided between theater and this, and Chapel Hill will always be my
The Carolina Coffee Shop opened in 1922. Before that it was a student
post office. Byron Freeman, the current owner, bought the shop in 1958. As
the story goes, he was an aspiring classical pianist, and he bought the
restaurant as an investment. He met his wife there and has made a life of it.
It is close to five o'clock now and the tapes begin to play harpsichord,
piano, flute and classical music continuously for the patrons. Waiters and
waitresses scurry around doing last-minute setting up. The lights are
dimmed and candles are lit.
A young bearded man in a chefs hat and apron comes out into the dining
room. "Tonight's special is..." Sammy Loflin is the head of the kitchen and
has been, off and on, since 1969. He was trained at the Savoy Grill in
London and he offers 80 entrees at the Coffee Shop. He bakes 23 of the
Coffee Shop's cheesecakes each week.
"The thing that I like best is that about a fifth of the present crew grew up
with the Coffee Shop," Loflin says. "We started at the beginning of the
boom." A council was formed of the head waiters and waitresses and
Freeman and other interested workers to discuss the future of the Coffee
Shop. "Byron needed some help and there were enough 'lifers' to take over
some of the small stuff," Smith says. "We sit down to discuss things once a
month We me y sterday to deckle on hours for Thanksgiving week t
Xays changes. We used to close for the month of August every year."
"People used to ask us when our coffee prices were going to go up like
everyone else's," Loflin says. "They should have gone up a tyear ago. We
literally gave away free coffee for a year. The coffee bill was between $ 1 300
and $1,500 a month." The coffee prices just doubled, from 25c to 50 for a
"bottomless cup." No one has complained, they say.
The two-story building which houses the Carolina Coffee Shop is owned
by the University. The upstairs is used by the campus police as a locker
room. "Byron owns the business and leases the space from UNC, Smith
There are constant battles over health regulations. "The building is so old
and the kitchen ceiling is so high that we can't get up 20 feet to clean it every
day," Loflin says. . .
Freeman has spent $10,000 on the kitchen in the last six months and
pulled 'the health rating up from a B to an A.
Byron Freeman wanders through and turns up the Baroque music. "This
place looked really different when 1 first opened it up. The booths were here,
but not all the tables. We moved that long church pew outside and it became
the people's bench. That area over there, it used to be the counter for an ice
cream parlor. The speciality was always toasted pound cake with a double
scoop of vanilla and chocolate sauce. One all the way, they called it. I
changed that fast. Now it's cheesecake."
A waiter calls out, "Hey, somebody in here over Homecoming, last
Friday night, some guy wanted that toasted pound-cake special."
"Yeah," Freeman says, laughing, "this place has been through a lot of
"We were the only place on Franklin Street that closed for the first
moratorium. But, this isn't a political institution as much as an example.
There's sort of a working-class consciousness about the place. I can tell
someone to leave if they're difficult I couldn't do that if 1 were working at
Howard Johnson's," Smith says.
"It's a livelihood for so many people " Loflin says. "We're a major
employer, contributing a quarter of a million dollars to the payroll in this
town. We've served over a million and three-quarters people in the last ten
"Sunday I felt like I waited on most of them," Smith says, laughing.
"What was I expecting? 1 was expecting to eat breakfast on my day off and I
was put to work."
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