Bunn’s offered much more than good BBQ

Published 4:31 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2023

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It’s been nearly 40 years since the Bryants first met the Russells. That friendship has stood the test of time, perhaps even more so now upon learning the news that the legendary Bunn’s Barbecue in downtown Windsor has closed its doors after 85 years in business.

Living in Garner in 1983 where we worked for a weekly newspaper, Deborah and I opted to return to our roots here in the Roanoke-Chowan area. My mother-in-law’s health was declining and Deborah wanted to move closer to her mom.

Since we would both be working at the News-Herald office, it made sense to find a home to rent in Ahoskie. We looked and came close to renting a house on Edgewood Drive, right about where the Ahoskie Creek Amphitheater stands today. I wasn’t crazy about having a creek in my backyard, so we passed up that opportunity. Sixteen years later that entire residential neighborhood was under water after Hurricane Floyd paid a visit.

Instead, Deborah and I found a nice home to rent on Sterlingworth Street in Windsor. The commute to and from Ahoskie each day wasn’t cheap because we both had to drive due to working different shifts. But there was a great benefit to living in Windsor….our front door neighbors owned Bunn’s Barbecue.

Wilbur and Grace Russell – their sons, Russ and Randy, and their daughter, Amy – resided back then at 910 Sterlingworth Street. At first, Deborah and I thought they operated a used car lot because of the number of times we saw vehicles entering and exiting the circle driveway at that address. It didn’t take long to figure out – with five people living under one roof, all working at the restaurant and each with a vehicle – why that driveway was always so busy.

Before Santa Claus made his annual rounds on Christmas Eve, 1983, I had fell in love with Bunn’s Barbecue, complete with its tangy coleslaw, old fashioned Brunswick stew, and cornbread. If we didn’t stop by the restaurant to eat-in, we would get a pound “to travel” (Russ’s twist on “to-go”), a pint of slaw, and some “corner” slices of cornbread.

There was one occasion when Deborah and I were hosting a dinner party for our families and the Russells delivered the meal, hot and fresh, right to our door. They even brought the buns for the barbecue and a cup full of their secret sauce.

Even after we moved to Ahoskie – and even now with our eventual return to Northampton County – a trip to Bunn’s was worth it on two fronts: enjoying a fantastic meal and exchanging family-related stores with our great friends.

The restaurant has also provided me, as a journalist, the opportunity to share its fame.

In March of 2012, I penned a story about a group of group of students and teachers from Gribskov Gymnasium School, located in Helsinge, Denmark (a small town near Copenhagen), who were touring the United States. They visited Historic Hope Plantation and were then treated to lunch at Bunn’s. I was there to document their first taste of highly-seasoned, slow-roasted pig.

I was on hand in October of 2013 when the Russell family threw themselves a huge birthday party to celebrate the restaurant’s 75th anniversary.

Four years later I stood near the front counter of the restaurant when North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper popped in to order a dozen or so barbecue sandwiches to go.

The intrigue about Bunn’s Barbecue runs much deeper than the hot coals on which the pig is roasted, or the savory, traditional Eastern ‘Carolina style sauce, or even the tangy coleslaw or the crispy cornbread. It’s about the people inside, both those working there or those coming in for a bite to eat. It doesn’t matter if you are a familiar face or a first-time customer as everyone is treated the same.

It’s about the old photos that line the walls inside the restaurant. It’s about the old gas pump outside, beckoning you to come in and take a step back in time.

It’s about the resiliency of a business and a town that kept bouncing back when Mother Nature dealt it yet another bad hand.

Those are the intangibles I’ll miss if Bunn’s doesn’t reopen.

You have to know the Bunn’s “backstory” to appreciate the historic significance of the building itself. It dates back to the Civil War era, first used as the office of Windsor physician Dr. Henry Vaughan Dunstan. It later became a full service gas station operated by two families (Spruill and Phelps).

In 1938, B.B. “Bunn” Weathers and his wife, Helen, moved to Windsor and purchased the Texaco gas station and country store on North King Street from Jesse Waters. They were the first to offer barbecue, coleslaw and the still famous baked cornbread.

Wilbur and Grace Russell took ownership in 1969 and kept the menu and “Bunn” tradition alive. Mr. Russell passed away in 1987, but his legacy remained intact.

The old building has witnessed more than its fair share of floods. 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, despite the eight feet of river water inside the building.

Bunn’s flooded again in 2001, thanks to Tropical Storm Allison, and 2010 (6.5 feet) due to a week’s worth of relentless rainfall from Hurricane Nicole and another tropical storm. The building – along with the rest of downtown Windsor – took back-to-back beatings in 2016 from Hurricane Julia (Sept. 21 that left nearly 5 and one-half feet of water inside the eatery), and Hurricane Matthew (Oct. 9, that bought 6 feet of floodwater).

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in full force in March of 2020, Bunn’s Barbecue found a way to continue to serve up its food and hospitality by building a booth at the front entrance and offering drive-thru service.

When you offer great good at a great price coupled with equally great service, people will come. And they did so for 85 years.

Speaking on behalf of other Bunn’s aficionados, here’s hoping someone will step to the plate (pardon the pun) and keep this tradition alive.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

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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