by Dean McCord
photographs by Nick Pironio
We live in a society that places a high value on rolling up your sleeves to start a business, getting family members to join in, and making a buck. We tell romantic tales of the family-owned farm or hardware store, and often lament the industrial agriculture and big-box retailers that have taken their place. But there are still pockets of the old ways. Places still owned and operated by generations of the same families, places that have survived, and even thrived, for decades, enmeshed in a community’s fabric. You only need to look down the street to see some of the best examples in our local restaurants.
We tend to overlook these places, even though we know they help define us a community. Too often, we fixate on what’s new and different. Want Korean dumplings? A gourmet hot dog? Laotian food? Or how about a high-end French pastry shop? And that’s just in the last couple of years – and just inside the Beltline.
But it’s the mom-and-pop places, family-run establishments that have been around for decades, that remind us of how far we’ve come, and who we really are.
Places like Mecca Restaurant. Finch’s. Casa Carbone. Char-Grill. Restaurants from a simpler time, when folks just wanted a basic meal at a fair price. Burgers. Lasagna. Fried pork chops with turnip greens. Or some hot biscuits straight out of the oven. Some of the current owners of these restaurants practically had their future vocations pre-ordained: They were born into the business.
In the blood
Paul Dombalis’s grandparents, Nick and Helen, started the Mecca Luncheonette in 1930, and moved it to its current location five years later. Paul’s parents, John and Floye, took it over in 1952, and ran the business for nearly four decades. “I started out working the dumbwaiter when I was 11 or 12,” Paul Dombalis says. “While I was in high school at Enloe, I thought I was going into the heating business, but then I realized that I really didn’t know what else to do other than work at the Mecca.” So while Paul’s brother and sister went on to become lawyers, Paul stayed at the restaurant, working long hours before gradually taking over for his father in 1990.
Maria House never had plans of being a restaurateur while growing up, even though her parents, John and Jean Carbone, owned the popular Raleigh Italian eatery Villa Capri. House managed to avoid working at the Wade Avenue restaurant until until she was 17, when she needed some money. She waited tables and acted as hostess and started a relationship with one of the busboys, Michael House, who would later become her husband. Michael also grew up in a restaurant family, but like his bride, he also had plans outside of food. The young couple moved to Charlotte so Maria could go to graduate school while Michael pursued a teaching career.
But before they could really establish any roots, the tragic death of Maria’s sister brought the young couple back to Raleigh to support to her parents. After taking on more prominent roles at Villa Capri, the Houses’ attitudes began to change. They started to consider opening a restaurant of their own. Maria’s father, John, had a different idea: he proposed selling Villa Capri so that the four of them, the Houses and the Carbones, could go into business together to open a new, larger restaurant. They could name it after both couples (“Casa” is the Italian word for house). And so in 1984, in the then-hinterlands of Glenwood Avenue northwest of Crabtree Valley Mall, Casa Carbone was born.
No two families are alike, and when it comes to the owners of Char-Grill, Ryon Wilder and Mahlon Aycock are brothers, but they are not related by blood. Instead, they’re brothers from the same fraternity at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College), in Wilson, N.C.
Wilder, a Raleigh native, grew up in the restaurant business. His father, a police officer, owned two of them: The Gateway on Hillsborough Street, and later, the Hickory House in Garner. Wilder started working for his father when he was 12, washing dishes.
Unlike Wilder, Aycock was a country boy with no restaurant experience. He grew up on a tobacco farm in Greene County and never imagined running a burger joint. But Wilder, who found himself after college in the early ’70s working as an investigator for the state government, was learning he didn’t want to work for other people. After hitting it off with Aycock at a fraternity convention, the two hatched a plan to go into business together.
In 1973, the pair took over the ailing The Char-Grill restaurant from the family who had founded it thirteen years earlier. “The Char-Grill wasn’t doing very well at that time, and it was on the brink of closing. We realized right away that the key to success, particularly in a burger restaurant, was to keep our labor costs low,” Wilder says, “so we each worked about 100 hours a week.” It paid off. There are now nine Char-Grills scattered across North Carolina, with a tenth opening soon.
Peggy Jin also took over an established restaurant, Finch’s, but her story might be the most remarkable of all, as a shining example of the pursuit of the American dream. “I moved from Shanghai to New York City in my early 20s, not speaking any English. The only place I could get a job was at a Wendy’s, and that’s where I started to learn how to cook American food.” Jin and her husband, William Liu, thought they had to leave the city after they had a daughter. “I would see people having their bags stolen, right in front of me, and it made me afraid. I didn’t want to raise my daughter in such a dangerous city.”
So the young family moved to Raleigh, with no real plans, and discovered that Finch’s, an old “meat and three” Southern restaurant, was for sale. They bought it in 1991, keeping the staff to maintain continuity. But really, the reason they chose this restaurant was the food itself. “This is easy food to make, much easier than the food from China.” So easy, in fact, that a year later, Peggy’s mother, Xiu Liu (generally just called “Mama”), joined them in the restaurant, and quickly became the primary cook. Today, at the tender age of 78, she’s still at it, manning the stoves at 5 a.m., seven days a week.
Creating a legacy
The future of all of these restaurants depends on their family members.
From the time Peggy Jin’s daughter Jane was an infant, she was part of the restaurant. “I grew up in this restaurant, literally, running around in diapers and with my play pen in the dining room,” says Jane Liu, today a student at Meredith College. “But I hated it growing up. It took too much time, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. Now, however, I love it. I realize that I had a second family at the restaurant.”
Liu remembers talking comfortably to customers as a child, joking with them, telling them their cigarette smoke stank. She even had a nickname among the regulars, “Nunu,” which means “little girl” in Jin’s native language. Today, Liu is studying business administration so she can help out her mother and possibly take over the restaurant at some point. She also is a waiter and hostess at Finch’s and the family’s newly-opened Creedmoor outpost. Peggy Jin’s entrepreneurial spirit inspires her daughter. “My mother takes so much pride in what she does, and I see that now. I didn’t see it when I was younger. But now, I want to be just as good as she is.”
At Char-Grill, Ryon Wilder’s two sons are active in the business. 27-year-old Ryon Jr., known as “RW,” manages the Edwards Mill store and 22-year old Harris the Strickland Road location. They both started in the business in middle school, bagging hot fries, cleaning, and washing dishes. Each of the boys went to N.C. State, thinking they could start a life outside the hospitality world, but the college life didn’t take for either of them. “Working in a restaurant is the only thing I know how to do,” RW says. “I need to be active, on my feet.”
And ready to make a (sometimes) good-hearted dig at his younger brother. “I tend to get under Harris’s skin, kind of like picking at a scab,” admits RW, who was Harris’s boss for several years. That sometimes means the brothers don’t talk for a couple of days. More often, their sibling rivalry leads to healthy competition, as each vies to beat the other’s sales numbers.
“RW was actually a really good boss,” Harris says, “but now, even though he’s older than me, he’s so much more immature.” RW doesn’t deny it.
John Dombalis, Paul’s son, has a lot of memories of growing up in the Mecca. He started working in the restaurant when he was 9. Like his father, he ran the dumbwaiter that shuffled food and dishes between the floors for 10 cents per customer. “I loved working with my grandfather. I learned how he ran the business.” Both John and his father mention how frugal the elder John was. “He told me that I was making the portions too large on the plate,” Paul said. Young John chimes in: “He told me that I was putting too much ice in the cups!”
Young John graduated from Wake Forest University and has a comfortable job with the State Employees’ Credit Union, but he still works 10 hours a week at the restaurant, doing paperwork, administrative tasks, and making biscuits. “Dad usually makes the biscuits, but I’m better at it,” John says. John’s not ready to quit his desk job, and his father isn’t about to hand over the reins, but he understands that his future might be as a restaurateur. “I have a lot of pride in the Mecca. I would be proud to take over.”
The future of Casa Carbone is also tied to family members. All three of Maria and Michael House’s children have worked in the restaurant, and 26-year-old Patrick is still there. He helps with the bread baking, like his father and grandfather before him. Michael’s brother, Jim, makes all the pizzas, and Michael and Jim’s nephew, Matthew, is currently in culinary school, with plans to join the family business. “It’s really difficult to run a restaurant with a family,” Maria House admits, but she also acknowledges it’s hard to get the business out of her blood. “I look forward to coming in and seeing the same customers, seeing families grow from generation to generation. And who doesn’t like going to work and being told you’re doing a great job?”
Family won’t be enough to keep Finch’s alive — at least not in its current location. Instead, it’s in the hands of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which has determined that the Capital Boulevard bridge traversing Peace Street, adjacent to Finch’s, must be replaced, requiring Finch’s to be razed. “We don’t know when the project will happen,” Peggy Jin says, “And we don’t know if we will move to another Raleigh location, but we want to.”
The likely end of the original Finch’s puts Jane Liu in a somber mood. Her father passed away in 2009, and her memories of him are naturally tied to the restaurant. “A big part of my relationship with my father is in that building. A lot of people, not just me, have grown up there. I will miss it.”
As will many Raleighites. But if Peggy Jin opens up a new place in Raleigh, we’ll remember it’s the people, and in many instances, the family, that makes an iconic restaurant. Not the building.