it takes you in and spits you out


I’m going to make this short and sweet: an institution that pretty much defined Chapel Hill and Carolina for many of us died today, and the outpouring on Facebook is unlike anything I’ve seen since… well, never. Not even the national elections had this level of public hand-wringing amongst my particular diaspora of North Carolinians.

For those of you who went to other schools, it was simply a pizza joint called Pepper’s, but it represented something much bigger. In 1986, when they finally finished Interstate 40 through greater Chapel Hill and on to the ocean, the clock started ticking on anything interesting or weird still left on Franklin Street, and the closing of Pepper’s Pizza means we have hit 11:59.

The interstate brought massive malls and commuter townships like North Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville. Then UNC ditched its terrible meal plan and developed on-campus restaurants and hangouts that catered to every whim. The first salvo was fired in 1987, when Fowler’s market closed, and with it, “Big Bertha”, a massive walk-in refrigerated room the size of a small church, carrying every kind of beer. Hence this iconic graffiti from the early ’90s:


No longer could students walk to a grocery store: they had to take what the campus would give them. Soon thereafter, beloved restaurants and experimental stores began dropping like gnats. A wonderfully beat-up movie theater called “The Carolina Blue & White” became The Gap, which became… vacant. The huge malls on I-40 started its slow death grip on downtown.

I kvetched nine years ago about the endless coffeetization of Franklin Street, waxed philippic about Pyewacket closing 11 years ago, pissed and moaned about Jeff’s Confectionery and The Intimate Bookshop shuttering a decade ago… but now that the Rathskellar and Pepper’s are both gone, I will make one last argument:

CHAPEL HILL AND UNC, WHY ARE YOU BEING SUCH IDIOTS??? I know this sounds stupid, but every time a place like Pepper’s closes, about four thousand of us subconsciously decide never to come back. Ostensibly, you want us to keep visiting the school, show it to our kids, foster the kinship we’d nurtured, and spend money – the kind of money we didn’t have when we lived there. But if there’s nothing left we recognize, why should we?

Yes, I can hear the detractors now. “Waaaaaaaah!,” they cry in sarcastic derision, “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! They took away my Barrel of Fun and my Schoolkids Records and now I’m gonna take my toys and stay home! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Fair enough. But while you’re busy thinking that us alumni are a bunch of crybabies clinging to the past, we might as well forgo that trip to our alma mater, and then our kids probably won’t want to go either, then our GAA memberships will lapse, and before you know it, the only connection we’ll have to UNC (besides basketball) will be a few random comments on long-abandoned Facebook pages.


Jon leads my sister past another failed Cold Stone Creamery, Chapel Hill, Dec. 2008

My radical solution? You can let the free market take care of everything else, but find a way to subsidize one or two of our cherished places. It may seem moronic (or socialist), but it’ll engender good will for decades, and it’ll eventually pay for itself. Chapel Hill will get to keep its entirely-past-expiry-date label as “cool and bohemian” and perhaps… just perhaps… the town can be saved from becoming another soulless “New South” nowhereville replete with chain yoga centers, “Noodles & Company”, and sad baby saplings guy-wired into bright-red cedar mulch.

I’m coming on Saturday for the home Dook game, the same way I’ve come for 28(!!!) years in a row, but I’m a dork, a completist, an anomaly. I’ve managed to make new memories with some of these eye-rolling restaurateurs – after all, in a decade, some other Carolina grad will stomp in anger when the Yogurt Pump closes. But for now, you guys have got to stop the bleeding. Re-open the Rat, for god’s sake! Put new pipes in Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe! Give us a shred of evidence that Thomas Wolfe was wrong!


26 thoughts on “it takes you in and spits you out

  1. Greg T.

    As much as I mourn the loss of Pepper’s, that the pain is not nearly as strong as when they moved to the new location and cleaned up their image. This didn’t feel any more like Pepper’s than Hector’s did when they re-opened it on the second floor years after the fire gutted the original. I have missed both places for awhile now.
    BTW, I found a Barrel of Fun token in an old change pile earlier this week.

  2. Ted

    Well, I live in Durham and never go to Franklin St anymore. Been here for 6 yrs and each year I take my kids over to campus less. It is all very different from when we were there. Ye Olde is going down soon as well. At least we still have Four Corners?

  3. scruggs

    We make it to CH 2-3 times a year. We only go to Franklin Street if are wanting Pepper’s (sigh) or Linda’s Cheese Fries (at least there is still that).
    Else, we almost always seem to end up in Carrboro.
    Places I’ve mourned along the way:
    Spring Garden
    Hector’s, the first time
    Flying Burrito
    Lizard and Snake
    Only places left for me:
    Italian Pizzeria III (IP3)
    Armadillo Grill
    Margaret’s Cantina
    411 West
    Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen
    Sutton’s (I wonder if they still let you run a tab and bill your parents)
    Mama Dip’s, but not recently
    maybe Carolina Brewery

  4. jje

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water! I am one of those hand-wringing alums today, mourning not only Peppers, but all the other touchstones that have passed. Like The Rat, which I still point out to my boys every. single. time, “Your daddy and I had our first date there.” Cue double eye-rolls at the sight of the dilapidated shell of a dusty room in a dark alley.
    Still, Carolina to me is about more than a couple of beloved businesses on Franklin Street. It’s about my friends, the ordinary days and the extraordinary days (thank God for equal doses of both) on our beautiful campus, memorable professors and classes, Kenan on a Saturdays, Dean Smith, the Pit, studying in the Arb…well, you know the other verses to this song.
    Charles Kuralt said it best, right?
    “What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. Our loyalty is not only to William Richardson Davie, though we are proud of what he did 200 years ago today. Nor even to Dean Smith, though we are proud of what he did last March. No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the people.”
    Someone will mourn the Yogurt Pump, just like someone before us mourned Danziger’s. But the real Carolina, the one that has meant something to her sons and daughters for 219 years – well, they can’t take that away from us. And that’s why I will keep going back. Well that, and my family lives up there now. ;-)

  5. tpq

    I thought the Rat was re-opening a couple of years ago. Did it open then close again, or not re-open? I’m dating myself, but still miss the old Porthole.

  6. wottop

    My wife used to work at the Yogurt Pump. We take the kids by when we are there. Showed them the inside of He’s Not even though they may not ever get to have a beer there.
    Time Out needs to survive the rebuild of the Square.

  7. Danae RIngelmann

    Ian – you should start a crowdfunding campaign to save Peppers! I’m a Carolina grad, 2000, and the founder of Indiegogo – global crowdfunding for businesses, artists and charities. We see businesses do this all the time.
    See: Natural Resources: neeed to raise $40,000 to keep doors open.
    See: Chico’s Bookstore: needed to raise $35,000 to keep doors open
    The community woudl support you. Just look at all the comments in the Daily Tar heel.
    My rec: Talk to the owner about how much he needs, and launch a Fixed Campaign with that funding goal, where you only get the money if you reach the goal.
    Good luck
    Danae Ringelmann
    Founder, Indiegogo
    UNC Chapel Hill, 2000

  8. D

    Well said. My husband and I are so sad about Pepper’s as well. One small point, I believe Fowler’s closed in late 1989 as I spent a lot of my freshman year (88-89) escaping Granville hell by wandering through there. I still recall being traumatized by the sign above the bulk yogurt pretzels that said something like “sampling is shoplifting.” As a side note,I do think it is interesting that with all of the closings and gentrifications, University Massage (as far as I know. I guess certain tastes are recession and interstate proof.

  9. T.J.

    @tpq: From what I understand, the Rat never reopened. There were plans to do so, but the costs of getting that place up to code (leaky sewage pipes and like), as well as issues between the owner and the contractor, put an end to those plans.

  10. E.L.

    All the coolness in Chapel Hill has been oozing west for years now : downtown Carrboro is the hip-n-happening place. I live here, and I NEVER go to the 100 block region of Franklin, and I can’t think of any reason to…..

  11. Joanna

    D, University Massage is now “Tomcats II, All Girl Staff.” At least they’re now more upfront about being a whorehouse.

  12. Ian

    Great comments, all. And Danae, I have read about you from afar, congrats on Indiegogo, precisely why the internet was invented!

  13. roger

    great article. but D is correct, big Bertha lived a little past 87. my freshman year was 89-90 and big betha was still stacked. bought both my first flask and first case of Busch light (still remember the product intro price of $8.99 a case) at fowler’s.

  14. Chris

    Bertha made it at least into fall of 1990, when I was a Freshman. Got some beer there and later puked on some girl’s shoes at the DKE street party. I thought I was just going to burp. Oops! Sorry!
    Class of 1994-Bicentennial Class
    -First class to start out with UNC One card ID
    -Last Freshman class to know Hector’s
    -Last Freshman class to do traditional drop-add at Woolen
    -Top political issues on campus Freshman year: Housekeeper pay, sculpture donated by recent senior class, Gulf War

  15. caroline

    hey so i work at carrburritos and lots of our guys have worked at pepper’s or know those guys really well. and the word from them is that pepper’s closed due to massive, total mismanagement — i mean, look at how they closed. announced it day-of, ran out of food by 6 p.m, and could’ve made a mint by milking the closing. so no one who knew how the place was run was surprised at all. AND i was mourning the old spot, hating the newer spot they got, but was told that the old spot was so roach- and rat-infested that employees didn’t want to work there…so, there’s a bit of the back story.

  16. Donald

    Oh, man, traditional drop-add. That was a total blast. Beat the pants off of trying for 6 hours to get through to Caroline.

  17. Greg T.

    Chris – I started with class of ’94 & had forgotten about UNC One and drop-add in Woolen. Thanks for the reminders! I watched Hector’s burn and it felt like we were watching a friend pass in front of us (I lived w/in walking distance).

  18. Skip Weathers

    In my opinion, Pepper’s heyday was when it was in the old narrow Schoolkids’ spot. Everything “Pepper’s-like” gravitated west on Franklin a long time ago. Had they moved toward Carrboro a bit they might still be open now. All the times I visited the new location it was not the same as before. Food, service, atmosphere. I have lived in Chapel Hill since 1967. The pendulum swings, again. I await a resurgence on E. Franklin, some day.

  19. ltd

    The University Massage / Now Tomcats II, All Girl Staff space has a For Rent sign on it and the Tomcats sign is gone. This happened in the last week or so.


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