In 2022, the local restaurant scene suffered the loss of institutions like Dos Perros, Garland, and Saint James Seafood. As the economy slowly regains its footing and local cities take measures to help bring foot traffic back to downtowns, 2023 looks to be brighter for restaurants. 

But just days into January, another beloved Durham institution has shut its doors.

C&H Cafeteria, a buffet-style restaurant that served as a popular after-church gathering place for senior citizens in Durham, closed abruptly on January 2, leaving customers shocked and bereft. 

The restaurant’s other location in Kernersville remains open.

C&H’s Durham location stood on Guess Road for more than a decade, occupying a space in the shopping center across from Northgate Mall that was walkable for residents in nearby neighborhoods. Its menu, self-described as “the original fast food—only healthier,” included a vast array of reasonably priced Southern specialties, like chicken and dumplings, yam souffle, and banana pudding.

Carl Harrison, a Durham resident whose 97-year-old father, David, ate lunch at C&H Cafeteria every Sunday, describes the closure as devastating. Since 2009, when Harrison’s mother died, the restaurant has acted as an invaluable social space for his father, who would typically stop by after church to fill a plate and chat with other diners.

“So many people depend on this place: a lot of seniors—you’d see the walkers, the canes, the wheelchairs—but also blue-collar workers and regular guys,” Harrison says. “It’s a huge loss.”

Harrison doesn’t know where his father and other regulars will go to eat, now that other similar cafeteria-style concepts have shut their doors. The pandemic dealt a particularly hard blow to communal, cafeteria-style chains like C&H: In 2020, as the INDY Week reported, 6 out of the Triangle’s 7 K&W Cafeteria’s closed their doors. Only ten remain open in North Carolina. 

C&H Cafeteria was not immediately available for comment, though the restaurant’s voicemail greeting has been re-recorded to address, and apologize for, the sudden closure.

“The past few years have been unprecedented for all of us,” the voicemail states. “C&H Cafeteria of Durham has been operating at a loss since the COVID pandemic began in early 2020. Unfortunately, sales have not recovered as we had hoped and operating expenses and the cost of food have continued to increase.” 

On Sunday, January 1, the cafeteria was open as usual, Harrison says, with no news of an impending closure. The next day, a “permanently closed” sign was posted on the door. 

“People were standing in the parking lot, just in disbelief,” Harrison says. 

It’s unclear whether the cafeteria’s closure—and the increase in “operating expenses” mentioned in its voicemail greeting—are related to the forthcoming development of Northgate Mall by Northwood Ravin, a global real estate firm that purchased the property in 2018 and intends to transform it into a life sciences research campus

In August 2022, the News & Observer confirmed that the firm plans to “renovate the shops on Guess Road that today house Planet Fitness, C&H Cafeteria, and a handful of other tenants, leaving them as retail,” in addition to renovating the vacant mall.

Northwood Ravin was not immediately available for comment.

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