‘We lost the interesting stuff’: Maintaining Franklin Street’s character

By James Tatter

On the most historic street in Chapel Hill, the premier restaurant owners had a warning for the newcomers.

“If I don’t tell you anything else in your whole life, it is ‘Do not get into the restaurant business,’” said Greg Overbeck, one of the operators of prominent local eateries like 411 West and Lula’s.

When Carolina Coffee Shop on Franklin Street went up for sale in 2017, a group of former UNC-Chapel Hill students felt impassioned to revitalize the old haunt and sought advice.

There was a couple of athletes, Heather O’Reilly, an Olympic gold medalist soccer player, and David Werry, a Morehead-Cain scholar and UNC men’s lacrosse player. There were the Schossows — Clay, one of “America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs,” according to BusinessWeek, and his wife Sarada, a primary care provider. And there was Jeff Hortman, a screenwriter and a content advisor for Universal Media in Los Angeles.

The restaurant novices were bound together by the idea of returning the nearly century-old campus institution to its old glory. The eclectic group sat outside of Squid’s, a seafood restaurant owned by Overbeck and his partners in the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group.

They knew the risks that came with purchasing a restaurant on this sliver of road: Rent soars, parking is scant and the market is oversaturated.

Franklin Street — the landmark that underlines the small-town feel of the nationally acclaimed university — is starting to lose touch with its community, and losing the old Carolina Coffee Shop would hurt.

Overbeck told them what they already knew.

“We tried to talk them out of it,” Overbeck said. “Do. Not. Do. That.”

But the advice was ignored.  Though, he couldn’t blame them, because he was once enticed by the same stretch of street.

The History

The original builders found sawdust in 1813 when they dug up the lot for the building that now houses Carolina Coffee Shop.

The building, one of the first retail buildings on the street, was constructed on the site of an old mill. It would still be another 100 years before the iconic part-bar, part-diner coffee shop would be conceived.

UNC was just forming within a swath of forest, and the mill supplied timber to the growing construction project next door that was the first public university in the United States.

Carolina Coffee Shop opened in 1922 as a soda fountain.

Now the oldest continuously operating restaurant in North Carolina, the shop can trace its historic roots, from the dirt road in the woods to Chapel Hill’s most prominent street.

Overbeck remembers visiting Chapel Hill for the first time as a member of his high school choir from Charlotte in 1969. The 100 block of Franklin Street had no traffic lights and only three crosswalks. Cars had to stop if anybody wanted to cross that main stretch.

“Chapel Hill at that time was very bohemian, there was a real counter-culture, almost hippy-ish,” Overbeck said.

Retail outlets including record stores, clothing shops and bookstores dotted the road. There weren’t many restaurants, but when Overbeck arrived as a UNC student in 1972, he recalled it being an interesting place to go to school.

“We had the mojo,” Overbeck said.

The Problem

Sitting in a booth at Carolina Brewery, about four blocks west of the Carolina Coffee Shop, Anne Archer recalls how West Franklin Street was shunned during her childhood in Chapel Hill.

“No one came up here,” Archer said.

During her childhood, the university was just beginning to grow into the international research institution that it is today. Basketball was big, the community was small and Chapel Hill was the peaceful village that hosted the school.

“The university today is a monster compared to what it was,” Archer said.

Crooks Corner, a notable southern cuisine restaurant, opened on the west side of Franklin in 1978. It started a rush of restaurants that populated the blocks between Crook’s Corner in the west and Carolina Coffee Shop in the east.

Mickey Ewell operated Spanky’s Restaurant at the busiest intersection in between. He employed Overbeck and Pete Dorrance, brother of the famed North Carolina soccer coach, Anson Dorrance IV. The two lived together and were joined by Kenny Carlson when he moved down from Connecticut.

After years of grunt work at Spanky’s, Overbeck, Dorrance and Carlson decided to go out on their own. With the blessing of Ewell, the boys started Squid’s.

The group eventually came back together and started the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group. They now own eateries across the Triangle area, including Lula’s (formerly Spanky’s) and 411 West on Franklin Street.

In the meantime, the street had evolved from a retail hub to a restaurant hotspot. A few prominent groups stood out and helped usher other owners onto the block.

But it quickly became too crowded. Choked of parking and swelled with rivals, businesses began to fold. Overbeck remembers lecturing his wife for shopping online for clothes.

“Honey, you’re not supporting local business,” Overbeck said.

But he thought about the new Franklin Street, abound with corporate outlets and chain restaurants.

“We lost the interesting stuff,” Overbeck said. “It’s almost ‘anything goes.’”

Archer has heard from her childhood acquaintances about what they think of these changes.

“Friends that don’t live here anymore, they just squawk about how it has changed,” she said.

The Future

Today, Overbeck is pessimistic about the future of Franklin Street.

“If we drove down Franklin Street right now, I’ll bet I could point out ten restaurants that won’t be there in the next year,” he said.

But still, amidst the constant closing of local establishments, a few survive.

Sutton’s, that’s the heart,” Archer said, listing off the spots she remembers from her childhood. “That’s been around since forever. Four Corners… Probably Sutton’s is the only place that’s left over from that bygone era, and Carolina Coffee Shop.”

The fortunate few places that persist on Franklin Street have a character that echoes through the generations of UNC students and Chapel Hill locals that have frequented them. The drugstore counter at Sutton’s is one example.

“With Suttons, there used to be a few ladies who worked behind the counter and they were always there,” Archer reminisced. “The camaraderie of people sitting around the counter, that’s one of those threads that keeps that place alive, keeps the personal feel to it.”

The businesses that persevere are the ones that become a destination for students and locals, as much as a place to eat.

When Hortman came back to Chapel Hill from Los Angeles, he remembers being attracted to Carolina Coffee Shop because of his memories of it as a gathering place and a campus lounge of sorts.

He had to save it.

And that is what keeps Franklin Street alive with the spirit of two-and-a-quarter centuries worth of students.

Some restaurants come and go. But the rest of the places that can cultivate the culture of Chapel Hill beat the chains, living to tell the tale of a street that has defined the town and the campus since it was nothing but a sawmill and a stretch of trees.

Edited by: Diane Adame