Chapel Hill’s Time-Out Restaurant hangs on as COVID-19 sends students home

By Jared McMasters

When COVID-19 sent UNC-Chapel Hill classes online and students packing up to return home in March, Eddie Williams was worried for the future of his restaurant.

Williams, the owner of Time-Out Restaurant, helplessly watched many of his customers disappear, returning to their hometowns. His restaurant on East Franklin Street began to suffer from the financial burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic which have forced countless small businesses to permanently shut their doors.

“Things really started to plummet,” said Williams.

With his life’s work on the line, Williams realized his best option was to keep the restaurant’s food consistent and the homely atmosphere alive. Time-Out is famous in the area for being open 24/7 for the last 42 years. He knew that if he could show his customers that their favorite establishment for Southern comfort food was not changing, then he had the opportunity to survive.

He spent nearly every waking minute at the restaurant.

While everyone else was sleeping, he would enter the restaurant’s black wooden doors at 4 a.m., starting his days before the sun was up.

If he was lucky, he would get to leave at 6 p.m. before the dinner rush started. If he was not as lucky, he would not come home to his wife, Valerie, until almost 9 p.m.

Time-Out is a “labor of love” for Williams. His unmatched work ethic is the reason why he still mans the cash register and serves customers after more than four decades.

“I’ve had to put it into a different gear,” he said. “And I didn’t even know I had another gear.”

It always goes back Chapel Hill

 Williams and his wife have always been part of the Chapel Hill community.

His father, Jack Williams, was a sports information director for the University in the early days of the Dean Smith basketball era. Eddie grew up running around press boxes, eating dinners with Smith’s family and going on beach trips with the Tar Heel football coach at the time, Bill Dooley.

He met his wife in the halls of Chapel Hill’s Guy B. Phillips Middle School when he was in eighth grade and she was in the seventh. Three children and six grandchildren later, the couple remains inseparable.

“I’m Chapel Hill through and through,” Williams said, sitting in one of Time-Out’s wooden booths along a wall of windows and UNC-CH memorabilia. “We bleed Carolina blue.”

During his former years working at his uncle’s old restaurant, River View Steakhouse, he fell in love with the Western-style sizzling steaks and the pizza tavern in the back.

He knew he wanted to make his own mark on the restaurant industry and figured there was no better place to start than in his hometown.

Within a year of graduating from UNC-CH, he married Valerie and opened Time-Out in its original location, on Franklin Street where Target is now. His father-in-law called him crazy for growing up so quickly.

“Now that I’m a father-in-law, I’d have thought the same thing,” Williams said. “But I knew I could outwork anyone.”

 His loyal customers

 Williams understands the never-ending struggle to meet customers’ standards because you’re only as good as the last time somebody ate there.

“Making people happy gets in your blood,” he said. “The fact that they choose you and your food makes you feel connected to them.”

For Williams, it is rewarding to hear the praises of longtime customers, like Cliff Butler, who have been coming to Time-Out for generations.

Butler started dining at the restaurant over 30 years ago when his nephew worked as a cook for Williams. He swears that taking home a Time-Out honey biscuit, drizzling it with half-and-half, smearing a thin layer of butter on top and microwaving it for 30 seconds has been the source of his energy for the last three decades.

“It’ll change your life,” he said.

About 15 years ago, though, the restaurant occupied a more sentimental place in Butler’s heart.

He and his wife were in desperate need of a turkey for their Thanksgiving dinner, so Butler picked up the phone to call Williams, the one man with a restaurant he knew would be open to serve him.

Later that evening, Butler drove up to Time-Out’s curb. Williams handed him a roasted turkey with stuffing and gravy cooked to perfection. The bird was so hot that the steam could be seen in the cold air, and Butler almost dropped it while loading it into his car.

He has recommended Time-Out’s turkeys to his friends ever since.

Even for customers who appeared later, like Mike Roach, it did not take long to realize Time-Out’s uniqueness.

Roach’s son saw Time-Out make an appearance on the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” show when he was in middle school about 12 years ago and begged his dad to take him to the diner.

They each ordered the chicken and cheddar biscuit featured on the show, and the cheese “unbelievably” melted in their mouths.

The traditional Southern cooking and welcoming environment instantly made them feel at home.

“I think Eddie and his team are just genuine,” Roach said. “He just cares about people. I’ve seen him just talking to customers that he knows because he’s friends with everyone.”

Even when Time-Out was forced to move next to the post office on the western end of Franklin Street in 2014, the comfortable atmosphere remained the same. When they checked out the new location, the father and son were amazed by all the photos of former UNC-CH star athletes lining the restaurant’s Carolina blue wall.

Black and white photographs of Kenny Smith making the timeout gesture with his hands by the entrance and one featuring Michael Jordan leaning against his first Mercedes-Benz in the Granville Towers parking lot caught their eyes. Roach knew that Williams was not the type to fall for celebrities, so all the photographs had to be on the wall because the ones featured truly loved the owner and his food.

“He’s an establishment in the community,” Roach said.

A case of Déjà vu

About two weeks after students left Chapel Hill in the spring, business began to pick back up at Time-Out and has continued to ever since.

Steadily, Time-Out saw a flow of regulars returning to the restaurant, like Clayton, a friend of Williams’ who picks up a to-go box of scrambled eggs, toast and a large half and half tea around 9 a.m. every morning.

Sales returned to normal, so Williams never had to cut anyone’s hours or lay off any of his employees; he did not think he would have even had the heart to do it.

For him, it felt like the community was rallying around a staple of the area.

“People know we’re open 24 hours a day, so they know they can come in,” said Cheryl Lee, Williams’ assistant. “He’s never locked his doors to turn people away.”

Now, Williams experiences a repeated turn of events as students leave campus again this fall. However, his faith rests in the values and cooking that have kept his business alive for over 40 years to continue to make a difference through these difficult times.

“A man told me one time, ‘Just take something simple and do it the best that you can,’” he said. “I think I’ve done that.”


Edited by Sarah DuBose