07/22/12 — 50 years of Pig: Wilber's Barbecue celebrates half century

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50 years of Pig: Wilber's Barbecue celebrates half century

By Aaron Moore
Published in News on July 22, 2012 1:50 AM

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Wilber Shirley and his barbecue have become legendary in eastern North Carolina. Shirley has been serving his old-style barbecue for half a century and has served many notable patrons, including Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.

It's not just the barbecue that keeps people coming back.

For many, it's the idea of walking into Wilber's Barbecue and seeing Wilber himself behind the counter in his customary jeans and Wilber's cap, ready with a friendly word -- if they can get him to stand still long enough.

When Wilber Shirley opened his restaurant 50 years ago, there was a soybean field where his pig cookers are now and U.S. 70 had only two lanes. Goldsboro has grown up since 1962, but inside Wilber's Barbecue little has changed.

"I'm just an old country boy, just like I was when I started," Shirley said. "I've done some things that I never dreamed that I would do and met the people I've met, and that's been the thing that I cherish."

Among those people were former presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, who had their own plates of Wilber's barbecue when they stopped by Goldsboro on their campaign trails.

"I gave (Clinton) a cap as he was leaving and later after he became president, he had a photo in a magazine of him jogging with a Wilber's Barbecue cap on," Shirley said.

That wasn't the last time the Wilber's pig made a magazine appearance. Shirley said his restaurant has been in at least four or five, including Williams-Sonoma Taste.

"They called me from San Francisco and they came here with a pure crew," he said. "They set up that thing just like making a movie."

But in 50 years, Shirley has run into stranger tales than making magazines or meeting presidents.

"There's all kinds of stories," he said.

In one of them, Shirley said his friend in the Wolfpack Club went to Greece, where he ran into trouble trying to order hush puppies in a local restaurant.

"Naturally the waiter or waitress had no idea what he was talking about," Shirley said. "So he said, 'Let me go get my boss.'

"So he came out and he said, 'Oh yeah, you're talking about like they have in the United States. I went to a place -- Wilber's in Goldsboro, North Carolina.'"

But Greece isn't the only country where the locals have eaten Wilber's barbecue. Shirley said his friends have told him stories of running into strangers in Canada and Great Britain who knew about the place.

He even ended up in a British newspaper.

"That's just the strange kind of tales I've been told," he said.

But despite a kind of international fame, Shirley said he'll never stop being a Wayne County farm boy.

"It doesn't really change my thinking about it," he said. "I don't look up and feel myself any prouder about meeting Bill Clinton or George Bush as president, or some lady that comes in here on fixed income. To me, I see them out of the same level. I never make a big deal about the articles I've had in the magazines and all this stuff. It don't really make me feel any different."

Everybody is treated the same when they walk into Wilber's Barbecue, and that is one of the reasons Shirley said he will never wear a suit and tie to work.

"I dress with blue jeans," he said. "When I started, I was not going to dress with a suit and tie because I wanted to be compatible with the clientele that comes in, whether they be farmers or house wives or whoever."

It's a tactic that has worked with the customers so far. Shirley said he has seen a lot of restaurants come and go over 50 years, but Wilber's Barbecue has weathered on.

"Only thing I can tell you is the Lord blessed me," Shirley said. "I think it's the fact that it's a personal relationship that I have with so many people from here all the way back to the mountains, from Greensboro to people going to the beach."

Shirley said he writes to some of his far-away customers, whom he thinks of more as friends.

But more than the magazines, politicians and far-away visitors, what Shirley loves most about his work is all the young people he has employed over the years.

"I have one that's a doctor, several of them lawyers, business people," he said. "I just kind of cherish the fact that maybe I contributed in a small way to them being what they are."

When he looks back at the friends he has made and the young people he has mentored, Shirley said he can't regret anything he has done in the last 50 years.

"I don't know of anything else I would rather have done, to be honest with you," he said. "It's given me something to do, and I wasn't working for somebody else. It's given me a challenge and also along the way to help people and serve a good product. I just happened to pick one that's popular, that's been around forever and a day."

But Shirley didn't always know he wanted his own barbecue restaurant.

"Well, that's a funny story," he said.

Shirley said he came to Goldsboro when he had had enough of his family farm in the northwestern part of the county. He found two opportunities at the employment office: Blackwood, an auto shop, and Griffin's BBQ.

"So I walked out on the middle of the street on Walnut Street and stood there trying to figure out which one I wanted to go to, and for whatever reason, I just went to Griffin's instead of across the street to Blackwood and started down there and got into barbecue.

"I don't know why I kept on doing it all these years, but that's where I started," he said. "I guess the rest of it's kind of a story in itself."