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With Gardine Wilson

of The Coffee Cup

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Soul food fans were apoplectic last summer when an Atlanta real estate company announced plans to demolish The Coffee Cup. But on Nov. 13, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, in a rare move, agreed to recommend the City Council designate The Coffee Cup a historical landmark. Also, the restaurant's landowners announced a willingness to sell it to the purveyors of home-cookin' goodness, Gardine Wilson and Anthony McCarver.

Wilson -- a 41-year-old refuge from the corporate world whose parents owned a restaurant in Omaha, Neb. -- recently talked with Creative Loafing about why he's fighting to keep the 60-year-old restaurant open.

CL: I saw a help wanted sign in the window. Are you hiring?

Wilson: We're always hiring.

What do you think the future is for mom-and-pop businesses downtown?

So much has already been destroyed. So much has already been wiped out in the interest of money in Charlotte. I think that our historical spots need to be preserved. You actually can see what's going on with Athens, Andersons ... all those are going week by week. I think that so many people who are from outside of Charlotte, they come to Charlotte looking for that down-home, Southern, take-your-shoes-off-make-yourself-at-home feel. That's what we give them every day.

There are a lot of places to get fried chicken in Charlotte. Why do people choose The Coffee Cup?

We don't have any deep fryers. All our chicken is actually cooked on black skillets back in the kitchen. That's a totally different taste on your chicken, as opposed to something saturated in grease. We actually know a lot of our customers by first name. Probably 300 of our customers come through daily. It's passion that still has us going. It's passion of the community that pushes us to get out of the bed and actually make a difference. For people to come to The Coffee Cup, they typically go out of their way. It's not like we're on the main strip of anything. So people typically come in there for a specific purpose and it's up to us to deliver.

What part of that comes from the restaurant's history?

I think the comfortableness, the fact that although The Coffee Cup was at one-time whites only, it was the first integrated restaurant in the Southeast for the most part. I know it was one of them. It's probably one of the few that's still standing. When it was integrated, if the front was full, white people had the experience of knowing what it was like to eat back in the kitchen. They actually could see firsthand what it was like to sit in the African-Americans' shoes in the '50s, '60s. It's a powerful statement.

So people have a lot of history. You say, what makes The Coffee Cup different? You actually have a lot of mothers that ate their last meal at The Coffee Cup before they delivered. You've got a lot of men who actually proposed to who are now their wives at the restaurant. You've got a lot of young people who ate their last meal with their grandparents at the restaurant.

Why shouldn't the land, being a prime piece of real estate, be used to the owner's financial advantage?

When the discussions took place in August, the plans were very preliminary. Our contention is that we would like to be part of the plan. Is Charlotte going to become a city that allows all of its structures to just continue to get torn down? Or 10 years from now, is there going to be something in Charlotte, just like in Chicago, or New York, or L.A., that you can say, man, this was a part of the city's culture. I think, with the mayor referring people down to the restaurant constantly, it's got to be acknowledged as such. The community has recognized it has a historical spot for a long time.

So how do you like this compared to the corporate world?

It's more in connection with your passion for life. It's more in connection with the purpose of why God has put me on this earth. I prayed about that restaurant before stepping in it one day. Knowing that I can actually shape and change a number of people's lives just by being an instrument is a beautiful thing. It's hard to have that in a national chain.

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