In early August, a taped note appeared on the door of the K&W Cafeteria at Cameron Village in Raleigh: “To our valued customers,” it began, “we have greatly appreciated your patronage over the years and apologize for the inconvenience.” The note spelled trouble for the cafeteria chain: All told, six out of seven Triangle locations ended up shuttering, followed shortly thereafter by a bankruptcy filing.

For many years, though, K&W has been an operation sustained by devotion. It is hard not to wonder if that devotion might keep its doors open. 

Patronage, anyways, is just one word for the support shown by K&W diners, over the years. Obsession is another. Since 1937, the modest, family-run restaurant chain from Winston-Salem has attracted an ardent retiree fan base by approximating the Southern food experience. It offers the Groundhog Day of Thanksgivings, with an affordable made-from-scratch spread that resets each morning; it also, according to some devotees, captures the spirit of a Thanksgiving dinner with communal arrangements that bring everyone together. In a 2019 profile, the folk musician Rhiannon Giddens described the food as “unpretentious” and the Greensboro K&W as an egalitarian space where elders and young folks alike could gather. 

“When you walk into that place, everybody’s there,” Giddens told The New Yorker. “You’ve got your folks off work, you have all of the working class there, white and Black, country folk who are in the city, city folk who have been there all the time. It’s my family.”

With its elderly clientele and communal serving style, it’s also a business uniquely unfit to survive a pandemic, though ownership insists that K&W has weathered storms before this one; there are years ahead yet. 

Diners like Vivian McMillan hope that’s true. 

“My family likes to tease me because whenever I’m in a new place and I see a sign that says there’s a K&W, I’m absolutely impressed,” McMillan says. “There can be all kinds of other things to go and see, but if they have a K&W, I love the place.” 

McMillan, who lives in Charlotte, told the INDY that she was first introduced to the restaurant while living in Winston-Salem, a single parent in the 1990s. She was drawn by its affordability and the choose-your-own-adventure spread of homestyle food. 

“Their deserts were always homemade, it seemed,” McMillan says. “There’s a Southern dish called Chess Pie, and they had someone there who could make that pie, oh honey, to die for, like your grandmother used to make. And believe it or not, I just loved their turnip greens and vegetables.” 

In 2012, on the chain’s 75th anniversary, K&W had 35 outposts across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. But the pandemic brought operations to halt, and during the height of restaurant restrictions in North Carolina, business dropped by 80 percent. The company fought to keep workers on: It received one of the largest PPP loans in the state, listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as between $5 million and $10 million.

In the application, K&W sought to protect 500 jobs. In an interview with the News & Observer, K&W president Dax Allred said that without that loan, the restaurant would have closed restaurants during Phase One. 

By the end of August, though, only one location remained open locally—at 3620 Bastion Lane in Raleigh—out of 18 remaining restaurants. On September 2, in an 80-page petition, the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a protection sought by businesses that plan to restructure and remain in operation. According to the filing, K&W has around $30 million in assets, debts of $22 million, and between 100 and 199 creditors. 

“The impact of COVID-19 and related operating restrictions had a disproportionately negative impact on our loyal guests and cafeteria-style dining,” Dax Allred said in a press release. “We are hopeful this restructuring will allow our cafeterias to weather the storm and continue serving guests for years to come.”

Recently, I called K&W headquarters to learn more. After asking to speak to the media spokesperson, I was transferred to a young-ish sounding man with an eager, attentive drawl; a few moments into the conversation, I realized that the person on the other end of the line was Dax Allred, who, since 2008, has been president of the franchise. He agreed to an interview under the understanding that any consideration of the restaurant’s legacy would not double as a eulogy: K&W, he says, is hanging in there. 

Chain restaurants are created with omnipresence in mind. Growing up and going to K&W with my grandparents, I’d always assumed I could just point a direction and eventually find one. In reality, it’s still a small homegrown operation. When I asked Allred for his email address, he gave me Gmail. 

The company’s creation story begins in 1937, during the height of the Great Depression, when Allred’s grandfather, Grady T. Allred, founded the restaurant alongside a family of brothers with the surnames Knight and Wilson—the “K” and the “W.” In 1941, Allred acquired the restaurant and began to expand operations; at the time, a hamburger steak with onions cost just 40 cents. 

It was a boom time when comfort and convenience were beginning to merge, and regional chains like Krispy Kreme—also founded in Winston-Salem—were beginning to appear throughout the South, representing a new kind of fast-casual dining. When Grady T. Allred Sr. passed in 1983, K&W hadn’t quite achieved the success of a chain like Waffle House or Krispy Kreme, but it had become a North Carolina institution about as ubiquitous as kudzu. 

His children took up the family trade. Allred’s son, Grady Jr., even created a competing cafeteria dynasty, J&S Cafeterias. Dax Allred is the third generation at the helm of the restaurant; a feat that only 13 percent of family-run businesses in the United States achieve, according to research from the  Family Firm Institute. 

He never set out, though, to be in the family business. When he graduated from Davidson College in 2001, he started working as a lab technician with a mind toward a career in medicine. But tragedy struck: During the summer of 2004, in the span of just three months, both his 18-year-old brother, Bailey Allred, and his uncle, K&W CEO Gary Allred, suddenly died. With no one else ready to take on the job, Dax stepped into his uncle’s shoes. He began management training by working in the kitchen, where he was trained by a man named Charlie Brown—K&W’s longest-serving employee, who had also trained Dax’s father.

“There’s certainly no substitute for working side-by-side with those who have worked for the company for decades,” Allred says. “It’s a tough spot. Kitchens are hot, days are long. During those two years I developed a deep appreciation for what our co-workers do for the company on a daily basis.” 

Since that handoff, every Allred is required to work for five years outside the company before joining K&W management. All told, 9 descendants of Grady T. Allred, Sr. now hold company shares.

Numerous chains have folded since the onset of COVID-19. Data from a July Yelp study shows that of the 26,160 total restaurant closures reported on the app, 15,770 are permanent. Many were independent restaurants, but chains and corporations have also suffered blows: Dean & Deluca filed for bankruptcy as early as March 31, followed by the French-inspired bakery chain Le Pain Quotidien. Garden Fresh, the parent company of buffet restaurants Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, declared bankruptcy in May and announced the permanent closure of all 97 of its locations, putting an estimated 4,400 employees out of work.  K&W, for its part, employed around 1,400 employees at the timing of the bankruptcy filing. 

Allred says the six shuttered Triangle locations were unprofitable before the pandemic, and that the business has modernized and been much more adaptable than people know. Take-out, for instance—which previously brought in about 25 percent of company revenue—has risen to about 35 percent. 

“I don’t want to bleed to you over the phone, but the corporate downsizing, as well as losing some of our unprofitable locations, has been the most difficult days of my term as president,” Allred says. “In addition to working alongside everyone for the last fourteen years, prior to that I grew up with many of the people we’ve had to furlough or terminate in recent months. In any business, it’s a challenge when you go through downsizing. But because of our extended family corporate culture, it’s impossible for it not to be personal.”

“While trends come and go,” the K&W company motto goes, “good food at a reasonable price is never out of style.” 

No one would accuse K&W of being trendy. If anything, its distinguishing quality is its changelessness. Inside the unassuming exteriors—sometimes in a strip mall, always signified by blocky maroon letters—a wealth of food awaits. Every dish is prepared daily from recipes developed in the K&W kitchens. There are steaming vats of green beans and hearty dishes of macaroni and cheese. There are rolls and cornbread and, in the salad section, gelatinous peaches and trembling dishes of jello that change colors like a mood ring under the lights. The baked spaghetti is a crowd favorite, according to diners, as is the fried chicken and Salisbury steak.

The menu has slight alterations from week to week but overwhelmingly provides meat-and-three stability. If the Waffle House’s bright lights are resilient enough to serve as a FEMA hurricane index, then maybe K&W Cafeterias is an index of a certain way of life, unchanging and invariably unfazed. 

“Once, we were sitting there eating,” Katherine Phillips says of a meal at the Greensboro K&W. “And we looked over at a family of six people, and the grandpa was in a hospital bed—the kind where he’s propped up—and he was just minding his own business and eating his meal. I hope I can do that one day! Nobody cared.” 

Phillips, who now lives in Washington, D.C., says that she celebrated every birthday at K&W until her 21st (it’s a dry cafeteria), often competing with her guests to see who could get a full meal for under $5. Her middle name is Winberry, and she felt a connection with the initials. Due to her strategy of passing up meat and doubling up on mac and cheese, she usually won the challenge, too. 

“I always remember being so happy there, and everyone’s friendly,” Phillips says. “And there was just so much food.” 

Special occasions have been one constant; the after-church crowd is another. Allred says that while Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day invariably bring in a crowd, Sundays are the weekly banner day, the line stretching long with Presbyterians, Methodists, and holy rollers alike. 

“A typical experience would be that parents and extended family after church on Sundays, which is problematic because everyone had to go home and change clothes,” Stephen Conrad, a librarian at Duke University, remembers of his family’s weekly pilgrimage, following a Southern Baptist service in Kernersville. “And then drive thirty minutes to Winston, and then stand in the cafeteria line for up to an hour.”

Inconveniences aside, many of the diners the INDY spoke with found comfort in K&W even after they’d grown up and left the days of birthday parties and after-church gatherings behind them. 

Breniecia Reuben, aka Raleigh DJ Luxe Posh, remembers not being tall enough to see the cafeteria dishes when she first visited the restaurant. But once she grew up, she kept coming back, often to the Cameron Village location the morning after gigs. If she was hungover, she says, the Saturday/Monday special was a steal: a multi-course meal for two for $19.99. 

Julia Kaminer—who is, disclaimer, a college friend—moved to Chapel Hill in 2007. Away from home, she recalls initially feeling lost and “bad at college” but found salvation in Friday-night dates with her younger sister at the Chapel Hill K&W. On one such Friday night, she remembers walking into the restaurant and spotting a dorm hall mate—blonde, coiffed, and the picture of college perfection—sitting by herself with a tray of food, peacefully eating alone. 

“It was one of those moments [that] just reframed my whole idea about how everyone was spending their time in college,” Kaminer said in an Instagram story. “And it just gave me permission to spend Friday nights at K&W instead of trying to have outrageous college fun every single moment, when I was in the middle of my heart breaking and my family falling apart.” K&W, she says, was a “soft place to land.” 

UNC librarian Aaron Smithers, meanwhile, sought the cafeteria out for comfort after moving from Texas. He worries about the loss of accessible community spaces like the cafeterias. 

“Sometimes I would go alone and get a plate to-go on a Friday or Saturday night when I was worn down cooking and tired,” Smithers wrote in a Twitter message. “And if I was there in dirty coveralls instead of library clothes, the people serving were so nice and gave me awesome portions. I really worry about all the folks that worked there and all the folks for whom it was one of the few affordable places in town to eat. It was a place for folks to come together for comfort food and comfort in each other.” 

It is clear that the restaurant industry will never look quite the same again. It’s also hard not to fear that certain ways of dining—especially communal ones like cafeterias and buffets—might become an extinct species of the South. Dax Allred doesn’t have all the answers, but he hopes to carry the K&W spirit into a new decade of business. 

“I remember one time when I was probably seven years old,” Allred recalls. “I was complaining to my grandmother about how long it was going to be to wait in the line, and how I was hungry. She turned around and sort of popped my hand and said, ‘You better be grateful for this line.’”

Correction: The print edition of this article spelled Aaron Smither’s name as “Smith.” We regret the error. 

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