The answering machine for Chapel Hill’s Ye Olde Waffle Shop has changed. If you call it now, the voicemail spells out a new reality for the Franklin Street diner, which has been open since 1972.
“You have reached Ye Olde Waffle Shop,” the answering machine begins. “The day is December 1, 2020. After much consideration, we have decided to close our beloved Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe. We will miss seeing our dedicated staff, loyal customers, and cherished community members.”
Melissa Peng, who owns the restaurant with her mother, Linda Chris, says the pandemic is the reason they are shuttering. The restaurant hasn’t been open since March 17, and the traditional breakfast fare—two-or-three dollar biscuits, large omelet plates popular with hungover college students, and the bespoke waffles—didn’t translate naturally to takeout.
Peng answered the phone on Tuesday afternoon while helping her daughter with homework. It was a hard day, she said, but the family planned to close out the afternoon by watching the UNC vs. Stanford basketball game.
“[Ye Olde] is all about being in-house and serving hot food to customers that we’ve known for many years, and students. With that absence of so many things, we came to this realization,” Peng says. “Today it’s just really challenging for a small restaurant to operate in this current climate.”
Peng’s parents, Linda Chris and Jimmy Chris, opened the diner in 1972. In the years since it’s become a family establishment and iconic downtown fixture. Jimmy Chris died in 2012 and the mother-daughter pair have run the shop together since.
In April, Peng—who had applied but not been approved for small business loans—created a GoFundMe campaign to support her staff and ended up raising a little more than $7,000.
The pandemic has proven an overwhelming threat to the restaurant industry and the workers who staff it and Chapel Hill, a college town built around students, has become somewhat of a ghost town.
Many other Chapel Hill staples have gone dark. Over the summer, fried chicken joint Lula’s shut its doors, followed by Ms. Mong’s and the Carrboro diner Elmo’s, which had been open 23 years. Others are still kicking: down a street, Breadman’s, opened in 1974, has made do with a spacious new spot on South Elliot Road, while Sutton’s Drug Store, just shy of its centennial birthday, is determined to make it another year.
Ye Olde Waffle Shop has been open 48 years and Peng says they’d “hoped to make it to 50.” She and her mother own the building and will be involved in whatever institution opens next in the space. For now, they’re savoring the memories that have been pouring in from community members and the UNC-Chapel Hill alumni who came through its doors and crammed into its booths for decades.
“Like my mom said, it’s bittersweet,” Peng says. “But I’m also very proud of what they built and how many people we reached. We never really changed much.”
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