City News

Owner's vision for the Coffee Cup overflows

It's a piece of Charlotte history that's survived segregation and attempts at demolition.

Now the Coffee Cup restaurant, like most businesses these days, is struggling to keep its doors open. But owner Gardine Wilson is determined that it will continue its long tradition of serving local residents and tourists a hearty soul food meal.

“Things are difficult right now,” said Wilson, who bought the restaurant in 2003.

When the Coffee Cup first opened its doors in 1947, it served whites only. By 1968 it had integrated, becoming the first Charlotte restaurant to do so.

Soon, the small restaurant on South Clarkson Street – located within arm's reach of Bank of America Stadium – became a lunchtime favorite for hundreds of downtown workers and others who wanted home-style cooking.

Fried chicken, smothered pork chops, yams and other soul-food delectables drew them.

Former Bank of America President Hugh McColl was a frequent diner.

But in 2006, Beazer Homes U.S.A. Inc. bought the property surrounding the restaurant and threatened to demolish it to make way for its development plans. Thousands of Coffee Cup customers petitioned the city to save it.

The city designated the building a historical landmark. It still stands, with its fate undetermined. But owner Wilson nevertheless had to find another location to do business.

First, he moved to McDowell Street uptown, then later to 9311 J.W. Clay Blvd. Since the move, the restaurant hasn't enjoyed quite the same popularity it once did.

“With the economy the way it is, people are choosing to eat at home instead,” said Wilson, who adds that his strong faith in God, dedicated staff and encouragement from the community keep him motivated and committed to keeping the Coffee Cup alive.

His vision is to not only return the restaurant to its heyday but expand the unique soul-food concept to branches throughout the country. Part of the restaurant's uniqueness is that it's turned away from some of the artery-hardening cooking methods.

Instead of lard, the restaurant uses extra virgin olive oil. Smoked turkey necks have replaced pork as a flavoring. Organic vegetables are also used. More meats are grilled instead of fried.

But the changes haven't been at the expense of flavor. A baked chicken meal I recently ate there was one of the best I ever had.

Part of Wilson's mission of revitalizing the Coffee Cup also includes rehabilitating people. Some on his staff are ex-cons or former drug addicts looking for chance to work hard and make an honest living. They work alongside cooks with culinary degrees and sous-chefs.

“The mission is to build an empire on the stones of those rejected,” said Wilson.

Things could be looking up soon for the Cup. Wilson is eyeing a return to downtown. He's planning to purchase the building on J.W. Clay Boulevard and openning another Coffee Cup downtown when the economy bounces back.

“We're trying to keep a historical part of Charlotte alive,” he said.