‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’

Published 10:36 am Tuesday, October 15, 2013

WINDSOR – It’s perhaps one of the most unique eateries in the local area, not to mention the entire state of North Carolina.

It also has more lives than a cat, bouncing back from each of a long series of devastating weather-related events.

That combination has led Bunn’s Barbecue to feed its loyal base of customers, as well as one-time visitors from around the world, for three quarters of a century.

On Saturday, Oct. 19 (2-5 p.m.), the Russell family, owners of the restaurant since 1969, is hosting a party to celebrate Bunn’s 75 years of existence. Russ Russell encourages everyone to bring a chair for an outdoor party.

Russ also provided this newspaper with the history and tradition of Bunn’s Barbecue, the oldest restaurant in Windsor, operating under the same name since pre World War II. Only two families have owned and operated the eatery, but the building dates to the Civil War era.

Many grandparents currently bring their families to Bunn’s remembering the good ole days when they entered as children when B. B. “Bunn” Weathers and his wife, Helen, operated with just pork barbecue, coleslaw and homemade baked cornbread.  It was literally homemade as Mrs. Weathers prepared the southern delicacy in their home and delivered the thinly baked meal in pork lard to complement the pork and coleslaw.

The Weathers purchased the Texaco gas station and country store on North King Street from Jesse Waters, who sold the building as the Cashie River had flooded its banks and entered the building. This was not the first nor the last time that the river waters invaded the service station turned restaurant.

“Mr. Waters’ wife remembers Jesse saying he was sitting on the counter in his hip boots when Weathers waded in and bought Water’s Texaco as Jesse would enter the service to later defend his country in World War II,” Russell said.

Weathers’ purchase would evolve as Bunn’s Barbecue and a full service Texaco gas station. Two other BertieCounty families, the Spruills and Phelps, also pumped gas, changed oil and other turn of the century ideals to the automobiles that frequented the busy streets in Windsor.

The original use of the building was to Dr. Henry Vaughan Dunstan’s medical office located down the street, but moved to its present site.  Windsor’s Post Office, which relocated from Granville Street in 1965, now uses Bunn’s as a directional finder, and vice versa.

Weathers, who was an avid bass fisherman, retired in 1969, offering the eatery and filling station for sale. A young family man, who sold and spread lime and fertilizer, and his wife, a registered nurse, decided to explore the restaurant business and struck a deal with the Weathers family.

Wilbur and Grace Russell started by keeping the same business name, but scaling back on full service gas and eventually stopped pumping gas during the fuel shortage of the Jimmy Carter presidency.

The recipes were passed down and continued as the Russells believed, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Grace Russell – aka “Amazing Grace” as she still works everyday at 80 years young – kept the baked cornbread tradition, preparing at home numerous slabs of bread and traveling several blocks for delivering in handmade three sided wooden trays.

She also remains responsible for preparing Bunn’s “secret barbecue sauce” as well as brewing the tea daily.

“She has been and still is the backbone of the business,” said Russ Russell.

Meanwhile, long-time employees Ernest Byrum, Willie B. Hoggard and Lewis Outlaw remained with the Russells, continuing Bunn’s tradition of fast friendly service.

Beer was soon dropped from the menu, creating a family friendly atmosphere.

The three Russell children, Russ, Amy and Randy, worked in the restaurant growing up, and the sons continued while Amy, also a registered nurse, moved to Greenville.  Amy and her husband David’s daughter, Emily, worked this past summer at Bunn’s.

In the first year of ownership, Hurricane Ginger extended the boundaries of the Cashie River inching ever so close to the front door of Bunn’s, but not creeping in. There have been many close calls, but Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 halted barbecue sales for 32 days.  The overflowing river created disaster for the entire town, but a strong will and determination by the Russell family and friends kept Windsor’s historic building and business afloat.

Bunn’s flooded again in 2001, thanks to Tropical Storm Allison, and 2010 due to a week’s worth of relentless rainfall.  It has dodged other weather-related “bullets” to include Tropical Storm Alberto in June of 2006 and Hurricane Irene in August of 2011, both causing the level of the nearby Cashie River to rise dramatically.

But as always, Bunn’s – pardon the pun in connection to its former owner – has “weathered” many storms and continues to serve lip smacking, traditional eastern ‘Carolina barbecue.

The menu has expanded over time to include barbecue chicken, Brunswick stew, chicken pastry and hot dogs.  Old-fashioned bottle drinks are still served, including an 8 ounce Coca-Cola.

The locals are not the only souls to experience the good food and family atmosphere of Bunn’s Barbecue. In March of 2012, Bunn’s served up its world famous pork, coleslaw and unique cornbread to a group of students and teachers from Gribskov Gymnasium School, located in Helsinge, Denmark (a small town near Copenhagen).

Normal operating hours are Monday – Saturday with Wednesday’s and Saturday’s closing at 2 p.m. and other days at 5 p.m. Winter hours are 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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