“What is it, baby?”
More than 1,000 people a day walk through the front door at Kinlaw’s Welcome Grill to a resonating greeting from Miss Betty, a fixture at the front of the cafeteria line at Kinlaw’s for more than 15 years.
Customers may get a “baby,” “love” or “mama,” whether it’s their first time in, or they’re returning for lunch after stopping in for breakfast earlier that morning. In just a few minutes, several regulars tell Miss Betty they love her, a feeling she promptly reciprocates.
There are no windows at Kinlaw’s, an open square space with about 25 unadorned tables illuminated with overhead fluorescent lighting. Rather, Kinlaw’s is a window into life in Fayetteville, a place where folks of all ages, demographics and walks of life find common ground in a plate of hush puppies, fried chicken and meatloaf.
The history of Kinlaw’s
Tommy Kinlaw, a butcher at the old A&P grocery store in Fayetteville and his brother, Bobby, a truck driver for Star Foods, decided to get into the food business for themselves and opened Kinlaw’s Supermarket on the east end of Fayetteville in 1979. A few years later, they opened a grill in a small building attached to the market.
The grill proved successful and they opened a second location downtown, next to the First Presbyterian Church on Ann Street. That spot, named the Country Table, is where Tom Kinlaw Jr. got his start as a kid in junior high working in the family business.
While that spot eventually closed, the business as a whole was strong and in 1999, they built the larger restaurant next door to the supermarket to replace the small grill.
Tom Kinlaw Jr. took over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant about 12 years ago. He hasn’t changed much, because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Coming out of a momentous 2020, a year in which the restaurant did more business than it did in 2019, Kinlaw’s is a well-oiled machine.
“It look a long time to get here,” Kinlaw said.
Early to rise
Breakfast starts at 6 a.m., which means some of the kitchen crew arrive as early as 3:45 a.m. They’ll bake biscuits, make grits and gravy, cook bacon, sausages and other meats that’ll be hot and ready to serve when the doors open. The sweet link sausage, made next door with the trimmings from the pork shoulders they slow-roast for the shredded pork barbecue, are roasted and then fried until deeply browned.
The fried pork tenderloin, a boneless loin chop tenderized like a cube steak, then breaded and fried, is another standout.
Diners get their choice of meat, a choice of grits, rice or potatoes; two eggs, a biscuit and a coffee or tea for $6 — tax included.
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Keeping hush about lunch
It’s 10:56 a.m. and the line of waiting customers snakes down the front wall from the counter to the door. The steam table billows steam as the trays that once held bacon, sausage and other breakfast foods are removed to make way for the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, butter beans and other choices.
There’s a transition period between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. when the last bits of breakfast are served, or a hot dog or hamburger for someone in the mood for a quick bite to go, but most folks seem to know that the main event starts at 11 a.m.
The menu rotates on a weekly cycle, though fried chicken and fried pork chops, both of which are butchered next door, are available every day. Monday means meatloaf and smothered pork chops; grilled hamburger steaks and baked chicken on Tuesday; cubed steak and chicken and pastry on Wednesday; beef liver and stew beef and rice on Thursday and finally, baby back ribs and fried fish on Friday.
Fridays are usually their busiest day, Kinlaw said.
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The pork chops, butchered next door, then breaded and fried, are popular every day of the week, as is the fried chicken. Kinlaw said they fry their chicken at a slightly lower temperature — around 300 degrees — which gives the chicken a lighter, golden brown color and impressive juiciness.
Lunch is $8 and includes two sides, hushpuppies and tea or lemonade. The side vegetables, just about all of which are made in-house, change daily. On this particular meatloaf Monday, the sides included mashed potatoes and gravy, butter beans, stewed tomatoes, steamed cabbage, corn and green beans.
Kinlaw said the yams, sweetened and flavored with vanilla, are a favorite.
While it might be tough picking which two sides to get, diners don’t have to worry about missing out on the hushpuppies, which are served alongside every lunch.
The hushpuppies at Kinlaw’s are elbow-shaped and about 3 inches long. A fresh batch is gobbled up within moments, meaning the hushpuppies on a diner’s plate probably haven’t been out the fryer for more than a few minutes.
The secret, Kinlaw said, is a sweet batter flavored with onion and extra self-rising flour added to the mix to keep the hushpuppies fluffy and lighter than one made with only corn would be.
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Kinlaw’s in the community
If you’ve been to a school fundraiser, church dinner, or any other community dinner around Fayetteville recently, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten from Kinlaw’s.
They catered for around 1,100 employees for the city of Fayetteville’s employee appreciation day a few years ago. They served dinner at 11 a.m., 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. for all 1,200-plus employees across three shifts at Mann+Hummel. Regulars have hired them to cater weddings as far away as South Carolina and Virginia. Kinlaw said they’ve even cooked food for other caterers.
Between 1,000 and 1,200 people walk through the doors at Kinlaw’s Welcome Grill every weekday, representing around 85% of the total business. The rest comes from catering. On top of that, they cook around 500 pounds of pork barbecue a week, much of which they pack and sell by the pound at the supermarket next door.
The kitchen at Kinlaw’s isn’t small, but for a place that serves more than 1,000 people a day, it’s not large, either. Oven space and room on the stovetop are always at a premium. It takes a delicate ballet of busy hands holding hot pans maneuvering around to make it all work.
Kinlaw said he plans to add online ordering and third-party delivery soon. Due to logistical problems with the building, a drive-thru remains a distant dream. But the food’s not changing and the prices, which went up $1 from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, will remain low.
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Kinlaw looked into the dining room, a large open area with its white walls sparsely decorated mostly in NASCAR memorabilia, and joked that people don’t go to his restaurant for the atmosphere.
They come for the people and the food, for the cheerful greeting at the Welcome Grill.
The formula has been working this long, why change it now?
Address: 1816 Sapona Road, Fayetteville
Hours: Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m
Have a place we should check out? Share your hidden gem with me at [email protected].
Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and business. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jacobpucci or on Facebook. Like talking food? Join our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group.
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