Wilber’s Barbecue closed indefinitely Thursday afternoon after the North Carolina Department of Revenue seized the business for unpaid taxes.

But, owner Wilber Shirley assured his customers that the half-century-old institution is not going anywhere.

“It is expected that by cutting costs of operations, our long tradition of serving great Eastern North Carolina barbecue and good food will be resumed quickly,” Shirley announced Friday afternoon.

“Thanks to all of my loyal customers. I hope that you will return when our doors are opened again.”

Certificate of tax liability documents the NCDOR filed with the Wayne County clerk of the Superior Court’s office show the restaurant owes $70,647.98 in sales and use taxes. The DOR requested the delinquent taxes throughout several months in 2018.

Wilber’s also owes an additional $5,663.25 in property taxes for the 2018 period, according to Alan Lumpkin, tax administrator for the Wayne County tax department.

Phil Baddour, attorney for Wilber’s Barbecue and Restaurant, spoke on Shirley’s behalf regarding the restaurant’s sudden closure and unpaid property taxes. The restaurant struggled to stay open for several years after the Goldsboro Bypass opened, but Shirley plans to reorganize and reopen soon with reduced hours of operation, he said.

Shirley said he contacted Matthew Smith, with the Finley Group in Charlotte, who will assist with the restaurant’s reorganization.

Unpaid taxes

Seizures of businesses often come as a last resort after all other voluntary and forced tax collections have failed, said Schorr Johnson, director of public affairs for the NCDOR.

Documents filed with the Wayne County clerk of court’s office show Wilber’s owed sales and use taxes as far back as April. A breakdown of the total shows the restaurant owed $11,335.59 in taxes from April; $12,033.69 from June; a combined $24,702.69 from July and August; $8,295.61 from September; $7,525.76 from December; and $6,754.64 from January.

When the DOR performs an audit and examines tax returns, Johnson said the department has processes in place for appeals available to taxpayers for any notice or collection amount received. Once the notice of collection is issued, the taxpayer has 90 days to pay the amount. The tax bills accrue interest over time, and the department can garnish wages, bank accounts and other funds to force tax collection measures, he said.

When and if the tax issue is resolved, the NCDOR relinquishes control to the owner, Johnson said. Until then, the department can work to satisfy the outstanding tax liability through auction or sale of the business’ property, he said.

A piece of history

Shirley, a self-proclaimed “Wayne County farm boy,” opened Wilber’s Barbecue and Restaurant, located at 4172 U.S. 70 East, 57 years ago in 1962. The barbecue joint grew over time into a popular place for meetings, parties and family dinners. It is known for its barbecued pork, which is cooked on wood stoves.

When asked why he opened the restaurant, Shirley told the News-Argus he moved to Goldsboro after deciding he had enough of his family farm. He said 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,” Shirley said in a past interview.

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

Wilber’s is a place where people came together — whether it was for laughing after reuniting with old friends or debating hot button issues. In 2010, three friends who worked on the USS Conway in 1969 met for the first time in 40 years over a plate of barbecue and fried chicken at Wilber’s.

In 2004, Gov. Mike Easley bet the governor of Pennsylvania a plate of Wilber’s Barbecue that the Carolina Panthers would beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football Conference’s championship game. The Pennsylvania governor, Edward Rendell, bet a plate of Philly cheesesteaks and sandwiches that the Eagles would win. A check from the governor’s office showed that it was a pound of pork, sauce and slaw included.

A debate over the Supreme Court’s ruling preserving former President Barack Obama’s health care plan got heated over plates of barbecue at Wilber’s in June of 2012. A Thursday afternoon lunch crowd of mostly older and retired or semi-retired regulars sat down to discuss the decision, with Shirley chiming in occasionally.

Many people have visited the restaurant throughout the years, including former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who stopped in to grab their plates of barbecue during their campaign trails. Shirley told the News-Argus in a previous interview about the time a photo of Clinton jogging in a Wilber’s Barbecue hat appeared in a magazine many years ago.

Wilber’s was featured in several magazines and newspapers across the United States, including Williams-Sonoma Taste. Shirley has friends who traveled to Greece, Canada and Great Britain who have met people who knew of Wilber’s.

Lynn Johnson, a loyal customer, said she has eaten at Wilber’s ever since it opened. She remembers how her father used to sandblast the grills for Shirley.

“The food was always good, and (Wilber Shirley) has always been a very honest, upright person,” Johnson said.

“(Wilber’s) is one of the last original barbecue restaurants in Goldsboro. It’s a Goldsboro tradition.”