Taking her last orders: Gaynell Brock closing Southern Belle
By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 25, 2013 1:50 AM
Gaynell Brock, who has run the Southern Belle restaurant for more than 30 years, will close the popular Mount Olive meeting -- and eating -- spot on Sept. 1.
Gaynell Brock, left, talks with Ann Comer, who has worked for her for more than 20 years. The Southern Belle has become increasingly busy since Mrs. Brock announced that she will retire Sept. 1.
MOUNT OLIVE -- Hugs and well wishes, some served up with tears, have been a steady diet at the Southern Belle restaurant since operator Gaynell Brock announced her retirement.
A part of the community since 1962, Sept. 1 will be the Belle's final day of serving up its well-known home-cooked meals where $3.50 will buy lunch of meat, two vegetables, bread and tea. Splurging by adding dessert costs $4.
The Belle is known as the community's gathering spot, where regulars swapped stories and traded the latest gossip. Several local civic clubs meet there, and the restaurant has been the setting for many birthday, anniversaries, Christmas parties, and other civic, social and family gatherings.
It also was a must stop for any politicians visiting the area.
"I have enjoyed fixing for them all," Mrs. Brock said. "I am sad, 38 years (as owner) -- I am sad. I knew this time was going to come, but I couldn't prepare for it. You just can't. I was talking to Bobby Kelly the other day. Bobby said that when he got hurt and had to close his station, he said it was one of the worst decisions that he had ever made in his life.
"He said it was just so hard to give it up. That was his life. That was his work. That is the way it is here because of the people that come in here are my friends, most of them."
That includes her tables of regulars.
"If one is out, we know they are sick," she said. "They know who is out, kept up with all of the gossip. Now I am not going to find out any gossip. It was the gossip place."
Some people have begged her to stay.
"A few of them told me they were glad for me, that they know that I am ready," she said. "At 84, it is time to retire. Some of them really get upset.
"I had a lady go around the counter yesterday (Thursday), she grabbed me around the neck and said, 'You know, I don't know what I am going to do. I don't cook anymore.'"
The woman said she ate cereal in morning and a sandwich at night.
"But she came out here at lunch every day except Saturday," Mrs. Brock said. "She ate a big meal at lunch, and that was what she ate. She said, 'I don't know what I am going to do because I don't eat at any of these foreign places.'"
Mrs. Brock said she would miss the people the most.
"I am not going to miss the aggravation," she said. "But I will miss all of my customers. They have just been so good to me through the years. I have watched their children grow up, and now I am watching their grandchildren grow up. It has been a long haul."
Mrs. Brock chose Sept.1 because her workman's comp and employee and customer liability insurance comes due the second and third of September.
Mrs. Brock, who will turn 85 in January, arrives at the restaurant every day at 8 a.m. and stays until 10 to 10:15 p.m., except Sunday when the Belle is closed about 4 p.m.
Rumors of the restaurant's closing have circulated on an annual basis for several years.
"It has been a long haul," she said. "I have been planning for the past five years to quit. I didn't know how to quit. I couldn't get that urge or that push."
However, a recent break-in at the restaurant and attempted break-in at her home provided the motivation.
"It made me realize it is too dangerous for an 84-year-old woman to be out here at night, and a lot of times there would be just two or three of us out here and late at night," she said. "My children just made up their mind that they wanted me to quit. I was ready to quit. I was getting ready. I am 84."
Mrs. Brock has run the restaurant since 1980. Her late husband, Russell, took over operation of the Belle in October 1975. He died in June 1985.
The restaurant employs eight full-time employees, including Ann Comer, who has been with Mrs. Brock for 22 years, and five to six part-time who fill in as needed.
Mrs. Brock said she does not know what owner George Kornegay will do with the building, furnishings or equipment. Nor is he saying what might go on the property.
However, Mrs. Brock has donated the handmade Southern Belle sign on the front lawn to the Mount Olive Area Historical Society.
Still, she said it won't be the same for her either.
After word began to spread about the closing business has dramatically increased.
"I guess people are getting that last meal," she said. "I had people tell me, 'We drove down from Goldsboro today because we couldn't come next week, so that we could eat a meal with you before you closed. I have had that kind of people coming in."
Mrs. Brock said Friday that she had not anticipated the influx and wasn't sure that she had enough food to make it through the weekend.
"I had no idea it would pick up like that," she said. "I will just have to wait and see. It may give out. It makes you feel good, but it makes you feel sad.
"It (final day) will be a regular day. I just hope I have enough food. I will just have to wait and see."