Southern Belle closes
By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 2, 2013 1:46 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- They came by the hundreds Sunday, filling the Southern Belle Restaurant -- the line of people waiting for lunch and a chance to be a part of history.
They weren't deterred by what at times was a nearly two-hour wait.
Tears fell as well as long-time customers talked about being part of the Southern Belle family. Many wouldn't leave before they hugged and kissed owner Gaynell Brock.
They wanted their photo taken with Mrs. Brock. They also took photos inside the restaurant and of the Southern Belle signs in the yard and on the building.
A few coffee cups and salt and pepper shakers became souvenirs.
"I know a few cups went out this morning," Mrs. Brock said.
The crowd was something Mrs. Brock had seen over and over in the two weeks since she announced that Sunday would be the last day the 50-year-old restaurant would be open.
Mrs. Brock, who has run the restaurant since 1980, still had trouble understanding the attention. But her customers didn't.
Mack and Judy Parks stood in line for an hour and forty-five minutes before sitting down to their meal.
Mrs. Parks said she couldn't think of anything else she would stand in line for so long.
"If it had been another hour, it would have been fine with us," she said.
Mrs. Parks said she expected no less than the huge turnout.
"I wouldn't have missed this even if I had had a chance to go out of town. It is so sad, so sad, but I am happy for her. It is the end of an era. We wanted to be a part of history. Gaynell is an icon."
Mrs. Parks said she had told Mrs. Brock that every time she came in over the past few weeks that she and her husband had felt like they were on the set of a Hollywood movie because of all of the attention.
"We are going to miss the food, because we have been eating here 25 or 30 years. We are going to miss the people. There is only one Gaynell and there will never be another one like her."
Grey Morgan, Mrs. Brock's son-in-law, wasn't surprised by the attention, either. He recalled when Mrs. Brock was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery.
"They have volunteers at the hospital who come out and deliver flowers, cards," he said. "This young lady came in there, knocked on the door, and stuck her head in. She said, 'I just want to ask you something. Do you own some big company? Who are you?'
"Gaynell said, 'Well, I am just Gaynell Brock. I just have a little restaurant.' She said, 'Why do you ask?' The girl said, 'I have never seen the like of cards in my all of my life since I have been here. I had to ask who you were.'"
Mrs. Brock expects that building owner George Kornegay will have the building demolished, something that she does not want to watch.
"But times go on, and things change every day," she said. "I am sad. We were really busier than I thought we would be with it being a holiday weekend. I know at least 25 who are at the beach and told me they wouldn't be here.
"So I really was not looking for this crowd. I am overwhelmed. I don't know what to say. I cannot believe how people have reacted. I just thought that we would close and go home."
But it didn't work out that way.
"I just never thought about it," Mrs. Brock said. "All of the flowers or the cards. I haven't opened them. I haven't had the time. It is unreal. I couldn't have done it without good people. I really couldn't have.
"I have had so many and they are all good friends now. I have so many that I couldn't even call their names."
The restaurant enjoyed a reputation 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.
Rumors of the restaurant's closing have circulated on an annual basis for several years. Over the past two weeks many of customers said they had held out hope that it was just another rumor.
The restaurant employed eight full-time workers, including Ann Comer, who has been with Mrs. Brock for 22 years, and five to six part-time workers who fill in as needed.
The restaurant opened in 1962. Mrs. Brock's late husband, Russell, took over operation of the Belle in October 1975. He died in June 1985.
"It has been good," Mrs. Brock said. "We came here and didn't even know how to start. Boy, we had a hit and miss there for a while. I have enjoyed it.
"I hate to give it up. But I knew that the time had come. I don't think that I could have made it to Christmas, especially with all of those parties."