Development

The former owner of Charlotte’s iconic Coffee Cup restaurant has a plan to reopen it

The Coffee Cup restaurant, which opened in 1946, was a symbol of racial integration in Charlotte.
The Coffee Cup restaurant, which opened in 1946, was a symbol of racial integration in Charlotte.

After being closed for more than a decade, the Coffee Cup restaurant, which became a symbol of racial integration in Charlotte, may reopen under the latest plan from its last owner.

Gardine Wilson filed a petition last month, through a company he’s a partner with, Sankofa Development, to rezone land on Auten Avenue off of Statesville Road just north of Interstate 85. That would allow the restaurant to operate there.

The 62-year-old restaurant closed in 2008, but Wilson said he’s hoping to bring the authentic, Southern cuisine the restaurant was known for to the new location. He said he’d been looking for a new site since 2010.

“I wanted to bring back all of the history and nostalgia of what it represented to the city,” he said.

City council will need to approve the request.

An ‘icon’

Withers Turner opened the restaurant in 1946 off of West Morehead Street. When the restaurant debuted, it was segregated. But in the 1970s and 1980s, owner Myrtle Heath “opened the door enthusiastically” to African Americans, according to a report from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

An African American former waitress named Christine Crowder and her white friend, Mary Lou Maynor, purchased the restaurant from Heath in 1980.

It was still a rarity to find that welcoming diversity in a restaurant when I came in 1981,” said local historian Tom Hanchett. The landmarks commission report calls the Coffee Cup Soda Grill an “icon of racial harmony and reconciliation” in Charlotte.

It wasn’t just the mingling of races: the eatery brought together workers from the nearby factories and bank executives alike. Former Bank of America executive Joe Martin frequented the restaurant.

“At that time, West Morehead, Freedom Drive area had a lot of warehouses, a lot of working folks,” Hanchett said. “All those people would show up along with downtown office workers.”

Wilson and his partner, Anthony McCarver, purchased the restaurant in 2003. It was designated by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission as a historic landmark, but it wasn’t enough to save the building from demolition.

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The Coffee Cup’s former owners, Anthony McCarver (Left) and Gardine Wilson (Right), in front of the restaurant in 2003. Jeff Siner

In 2006, Beazer Homes U.S.A. Inc. bought the property surrounding the restaurant, and had plans to turn the land into a multifamily community. It bulldozed the restaurant, despite a public outcry.

The troubled homebuilder was the subject of an Observer investigation and eventually faced federal charges related to its mortgage business and accounting. It sold the land to Charlotte Pipe and Foundry for $21.6 million in 2011.

‘Its legacy lives on’

After leaving the original location, the restaurant opened on McDowell Street in uptown, then later at 9311 J.W. Clay Blvd, but it closed in 2008. Wilson partly blamed that on the recession.

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Cook Steve Humphrey fixes a plate at the Coffee Cup’s location in University City in 2007. Logan Price

This time, he’s more hopeful. He said he’s looking to bring back some of the cooks and staff members from the original location.

But there’s one thing he won’t be able to bring back: the iconic sign in the shape of a giant cup of coffee. It disappeared shortly before the building was demolished, and Wilson says its location remains a mystery. But he said he’s already talking to a few companies that may try to recreate it.

Dan Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, said with the divisions in today’s society, it’s important to have a place like the Coffee Cup to bring people of all backgrounds together.

“The greatest thing about things from the past is that they can help with issues of the future,” he said. “Unfortunately (the Coffee Cup) got in the way of large-scale development. But its legacy lives on.”


Correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of one of the Coffee Cup's former owners. It is Myrtle Heath.
Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.
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