By Caroline Bowersox
If there’s one thing a college student loves, it’s a late-night meal. The beauty of greasy, salty, high calorie food after a long night of studying or bar hopping is unparalleled. In Chapel Hill most restaurants only stay open until midnight, leaving UNC-Chapel Hill students hungry when 2 or 3 a.m. rolls around.
One restaurant may exist as a beacon of hope. Cook Out is a North Carolina-based fast-food chain with a drive-thru that stays open until as late as 4 a.m. on weekends. So tired from studying for hours in Davis Library that you can’t fathom cooking a meal for yourself? Cook Out has your back! Tired of rushing to Cosmic Cantina before it closes at midnight and being stuck with eating another burrito? With an expansive menu offering hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, barbecue, quesadillas, wraps, many fried side dishes, and more than 40 different milkshake flavors, Cook Out has several options that can satisfy whatever your taste buds are craving.
If only opening a drive-thru in Chapel Hill wasn’t so difficult.
Why isn’t there a Cook Out in Chapel Hill?
In 1998, Chapel Hill enacted an ordinance that barred new drive-thrus from being built without applying for the Special Use Permit beforehand.
Drive-thru restaurants have successfully been implemented in the Carraway Village shopping center and on Fordham Boulevard, but these locations are miles away from the university’s campus. According to Josh Mayo, a transportation planner for the town of Chapel Hill, it is unlikely that the town’s government will allow a drive-thru to be built in the 500 or lower block of Franklin Street, the section of the street that is closest to the campus.
“If I was going to put a fast food drive-thru on Franklin, that wouldn’t be in harmony with the area,” Mayo said. The town government values the walkability of Franklin Street, and putting in a drive-thru would disrupt that.
The Special Use permitting process can take many years. The Dunkin’ Donuts franchise on East Franklin Street has been in the process with the Town Council to have its drive-thru plans approved since 2019.
“It’s kind of long, it’s expensive, you have to get consultants and plans drawn up, and you have to have someone present in front of the council, and a lot of time and effort goes into it, so there’s a bit of a barrier there,” Mayo said.
As of 2021, there are no Cook Out locations in the entirety of Orange County, forcing Chapel Hill residents to travel into Durham (enemy territory!) for their late-night munchies fix.
“Bring Cook Out to Franklin Street!”
One night in the spring of 2018, Spencer Zachary was holed up in the library with some friends. The sophomore political science major was supposed to be studying for final exams, but instead he was focused on developing Chapel Hill’s next great business idea.
“I was just trying to pass an hour or two while studying,” Zachary said. That night, he created a Change.org petition titled “Bring Cook Out to Franklin Street!”
“It kind of just started as a joke,” he said, “But every good joke starts with a little bit of inkling of truth that maybe it could actually happen.”
Spanky’s Bar and Restaurant, located at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia Street, had recently closed its doors, leaving a prime piece of real estate available just a short walk from campus. Zachary saw an opportunity to provide what many UNC-Chapel Hill students had long yearned for: a walk-in Cook Out.
Zachary didn’t expect his petition to get many signatures. But as the semester went on, the petition amassed over 1,500 signatures. Students commented things like, “Now this is the change we all need,” and “Every college campus needs a Cook Out.”
After his petition picked up steam, Zachary was featured on the Carolina Insider podcast. Eventually, Cook Out, Inc. got word of the petition and posted about it on Twitter.
At the heart of it all was a nostalgia seeking, small town kid from Western North Carolina. “In the town that I grew up in, it was almost like going to Cook Out was a small event,” he said, “Everyone would pile in a car and we would go get Cook Out.”
Considering that Cook Out is special to the state of North Carolina, it is difficult to see why UNC-CH doesn’t have its own location.
“It’s definitely a part of North Carolina lore that the big three restaurants are Cook Out, Bojangles, and Krispy Kreme,” Zachary said, “It’s like the Holy Trinity.”
A relationship built on milkshakes
When Emma Smith was a sophomore at UNC-CH, she and her best friend made a habit of staying up into the wee hours of the morning to study. After combing through page after page of biology homework, the two had a tradition to drive into Durham, for Cook Out milkshakes. Smith would always mix-and-match the flavors to make a chocolate banana pudding milkshake, and they would sit and talk for hours.
“Cook Out is sort of a liminal space,” Smith said, “That combination of talking with your best friend and being there late at night makes time fly by so fast.”
After a year or two of making regular Cook Out trips together, the pair started dating, and have been together for three years now. Smith frequently jokes with her partner about the times they talked for hours over milkshakes in undergrad. “We should’ve known we were supposed to be together,” she said.
Smith’s relationship status has changed since her nightly Cook Out trips sophomore year, and her milkshake order has been updated too. “I get a caramel Butterfinger shake now,” she said, “The flavor is a game-changer for me.”
Edited by Katie Bowes and Jorelle Trinity