Barbecue did more than save Samuel Dillard's grocery business in the 1950s. For more than five decades, it sustained a family, employed friends and neighbors, and gave folks in South Durham a common table.
Sam Dillard, a Mississippi native and Tuskegee University graduate, started with a grocery store in 1953. In those days, customers expected groceries to extend them credit, but that arrangement wasn't always beneficial to the owner.
"They had good intentions, but when Friday came, they didn't always have the money," says Dillard's daughter, Wilma Dillard. She took over the business after her father's death in 1997. "He needed something that would be a sure thing." And that, suggested Sam Dillard's friend, Til Bagley, was barbecue, specifically, mustard-based barbecue.
"My father said, 'I've never heard of barbecue, let alone made it'," Wilma Dillard says. But Bagley, who hailed from South Carolina, promised its success and taught Sam Dillard how to cook pork and dress it in a mustard-based sauce.
The business didn't immediately take off, but it gave Sam Dillard enough money to buy ingredients each day to keep the place running. As Wilma Dillard explains, her father's business also created a place for minorities to have jobs that brought dignity to them. Black men and women worked as butchers, cashiers and overseers for divisions like produce, orders and deliveries. The store also served as an African-American community center. "It was more like a neighborhood social space where people discussed topics like church news or boys' and girls' activities," says Wilma Dillard. "It was sort of a catalyst for a lot of things."
Following the civil rights movement, Dillard's became a gathering spot for all races and classes. As Bob Garner, author of North Carolina Barbecue, Flavored By Time, puts it, food has the ability to bring people together: "Barbecue and good food tend to be an aisle of sanity."
Wilma Dillard agrees.
"I used to say that we survived segregation, meaning that we were able to do it with just a minority dollar, but as I got older, I realized that we survived integration, too," she says. "The community embraced us as a good service with a good product, and they let it stand on its own merit. It was very, very humbling."
On Saturday, Dillard's Bar-B-Q received the Hayti Heritage Center's Legacy Award. Edward Gomes, a member of Hayti's Board of Directors, says the legacy awards go to people and organizations with strong and long-standing connections to the Durham community.
"We're honoring them as a Durham institution, or as it has been described 'an icon of Durham'," he says. "Regardless of your socio-economic background, you've likely enjoyed their offerings either at their Fayetteville Street location or at any number of sponsored events."
Dillard's was well known for its stand at the Durham Bulls' stadium. George Habel, a vice president for the team, says Dillard's barbecue was "part of the ethos of going to a Bulls game." Last year, Habel says, the park sold 6,500 Dillard's sandwiches, the equivalent of more than 4,000 pounds of pork.
John Shelton Reed, who helped pen North Carolina's bible of barbecue, Holy Smoke, says that Dillard's "was not North Carolina barbecue as generally understood." The Durham restaurant favored a mustard-based sauce, a style more prevalent in South Carolina. But to generations of eaters, Dillard's deviation from North Carolina's distinctive eastern-vinegar and western-tomato sauce traditions didn't matter.
Dillard's standing in the community was clear on the restaurant's final days. Wilma Dillard announced the closing—due to an uncertain economy—just a few days before the last plate was served March 18.
During that time, patrons flocked to the restaurant to honor the Dillard family, and, of course, to snag another helping of barbecue. Burnette Smith, a Durham resident who had frequented Dillard's since at least the mid-1960s, made three trips on the last day, deterred the first two times by a line that curved around the door, and determined on her final stop to stand however long it took to order barbecue, ribs and carrot soufflé. "This is my last chance," she said before waiting for nearly an hour.
Even barbecue fanatics say there was more to Dillard's than its meat. "Dillard's was as much known as a yum-yum-eat 'em up place with fish and country-style vegetables," says Garner. Reed says, "Personally, I loved their carrot soufflé."
According to Kim Walker, a long-time customer who helped out during Dillard's last week, the restaurant sold more than 100 pounds in its last two days, and barbecue was the first thing to go. But customers were happy to get whatever they could. Once up to the serving line, they reported on the remaining foods to folks behind them.
"Hey, there's carrot soufflé," Smith accounted, smiling. "I see one hush puppy."
Customers swapped stories of Dillard's past and wrote their name in guest book nearly 30 pages long. Seated in a corner near the restaurant's entrance was Geneva Dillard, whose husband founded the restaurant. Friends swooped in to hold hands and offer both condolences and congratulations.
"I'm proud to know that we meant so much to the community. I've felt blessed," said Geneva Dillard. "But if I'd known this would have happened, I would have cooked more food."