Goldsboro’s beloved barbecue joint Wilber’s reopens its doors with a new look, but the same smoked classics.
by Will Lingo | photograph by Ryan Bevel
Wilber’s Barbecue has fires burning in its brick pits again. In June—more than a year after its doors closed—this icon of North Carolina barbecue smoked a pig to welcome friends and family to the new Wilber’s, the same as it ever was.
Back in 1962, Wilber Shirley and a partner, Carl Lyerly, bought Hill’s Barbecue on N.C. 70 in Goldsboro from Fred Hill and changed the name to Highway 70 Barbecue. Within a few years, Lyerly, a sand and gravel man by trade, asked Shirley to buy him out. The name changed again—to Wilber’s Barbecue—then little else changed for another 50 years. Wilber’s is still in the original brick building (with dining spaces added over the years) and pigs are still cooked, low and slow, in the original pit house out back. Whole hogs, oak coals, day after day, night after night.
“Anybody can take a cooker and light a burner,” says Shirley. “But when somebody cooks on wood, that’s what makes the difference. You can taste it in the quality of the product. I grew up thinking that was the only way to cook a pig, to tell you the truth.”
When the business filed for bankruptcy in 2019, it looked like Wilber’s would follow the path of Allen & Son in Chapel Hill or Bill’s Barbecue in Wilson, longtime barbecue destinations that recently closed their doors. Instead, investors came through: local businessman Willis Underwood pulled together a group of folks to buy him out, then set about the work of getting Wilber’s back on its feet. “We want generations to continue coming to Wilber’s,” says Underwood. With their investment, workers have spent the last few months cleaning, replacing the floors, rebuilding the bathrooms and kitchen, and putting a new roof on the pit house. The new owners fixed what needed fixing while keeping the fundamentals the same.
Today, customers who walk in will find the original knotty pine paneling on the walls and ceiling, and familiar (but all-new) red-checkered tablecloths. They’ll know the barbecue is cooked in the same way it has been for decades, but will also see what Underwood calls a more “pit-centric” menu, with more smoked meats and classic sides like coleslaw and Brunswick stew. Shirley, who celebrated his 90th birthday in June, has retired, but many of the same Wilber’s employees are in their old familiar places.
“We just didn’t want to see the history disappear,” says Underwood, a lifelong Goldsboro resident, Wilber’s customer and barbecue aficionado. “A piece of Goldsboro would be missing if it was gone. We wanted to keep the old, but bring it up to date—and keep serving the best barbecue around.”