Never say never. Campbell ended up in the restaurant business. Earlier this week, she celebrated 40 years of running her own Fuquay establishment, Campbell’s Diner. “If you ever start [a restaurant], it’s hard to quit,” she says of her tenure.
It’s the last man standing on a developed part of Main Street that packs nearly 40 restaurants—mostly brick, and mostly chain eateries—into a three-mile stretch. With rusty-brown lettering that spells the restaurant’s name across its beige wood siding, Campbell’s is a trailer. From the road, tiny windows draped with scalloped white curtains obscure the dining room, which feels as homey as the building itself. Stationed behind a long lunch counter, a small white refrigerator displays family mementos: baby pictures, sports portraits and a newspaper clipping with Campbell, her husband, Junius, and the headline, “Campbells celebrate 65th anniversary.”
A dry-erase board pinned to the wall lists featured vegetables and meats (hamburger steak, an obvious favorite, is served on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Most of the recipes for such dishes were perfected in or inspired by relatives’ kitchens—many of which were professional. Campbell says her menu is similar to what her father served at Fuquay Restaurant, and what her brother, Billy Powell, offered at his post, Powell’s Café, which was located just outside of town. The dressing for the meatloaf at Campbell’s is a take on the barbecue sauce that Junius Campbell, 89, used to serve at Mike’s Barbecue, a wholesale and retail business that he ran on the outskirts of town.
Campbell began her own stint in the food industry when Floyd Baker, the man who took over her father’s place upon his retirement, decided to give it up. Campbell didn’t want to see the place close, so she left her job in electronics to oversee the business for five years. After that amount of time, she decided she was done with the hard work that a restaurant demands and closed it. “That lasted about nine months,” Campbell says. She missed the daily contact with customers and employees, so she bought a trailer near her husband’s business and opened Campbell’s. It was the day after Labor Day in 1971.
“Everyone came out to eat,” Campbell says. But everyone also asked that she move uptown. The trailer made relocating possible. So in 1974, Campbell hauled the building to its current spot on Main Street, which she rented for $45 a month. “Two days later, we were open again,” she says. Workers poured in from the nearby nuclear plant as early as 4:30 a.m. in search of a hot meal.
The restaurant has a regular base of customers including a group called ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out), which meets for breakfast once a month. Campbell, like her customers, hopes that anyone who buys the property will allow the restaurant to stay. “I can’t move the diner,” she says. “Trailers deteriorate.”
Campbell and Junius, who eventually closed his barbecue business in order to help with the in-town restaurant, no longer work a regular shift at Campbell’s Diner. They turned over the day-day-day business to two longtime employees last January. “It was time for us to slow up,” she says. Still, Campbell continues to make weekly runs to the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, where she’s bought fresh vegetables from wholesaler Dennis Ennis and his family for 45 years. She also regularly visits Campbell’s.
Junius dines at the restaurant almost every day at 11 a.m. “I tell him to go eat a big lunch and then if I don’t cook dinner that’s OK,” Campbell says.
With her new time off, Campbell enjoys dining out, too. She regularly joins a group of six to ten women—many of whom are from her church—for daily lunches. “There are 75 restaurants in town today,” she says. But to her, Campbell’s isn’t one of them. It’s home.
Campbell's Diner (530 N. Main St., Fuquay-Varina, 552-6921) is open 6 a.m.—2 p.m., Monday through Friday and 6 a.m.—11 a.m. Saturday.