DG MARTIN COLUMN: Watch for changes at favorite restaurants

What do the late Mildred “Mama Dip” Council and Vivian Howard have in common?

D.G. Martin

Both owned restaurants that served popular regional food to appreciative patrons: Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill and Howard in Kinston.

Both earned lavish praise in the popular press and from writers in food and travel publications. Both authored successful books about food. Council wrote “Mama Dip’s Kitchen,” which UNC Press says is one of its best-selling books. Howard’s “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South,” published by Little, Brown and Company, was a New York Times best seller.

The late Mildred “Mama Dip” Council and Howard were natural stars on television. Council and her smile sold her books on television and appeared on numerous programs. Howard’s PBS program, “A Chef’s Life,” ran for five successful seasons.

Now both of their restaurants face challenges. Howard’s Chef and the Farmer in Kinston has closed at least temporarily.

Mama Dip’s restaurant, now owned by her children, has put its building at 408 West Rosemary St. in Chapel Hill on the market for $3.6 million.

WRAL News reported the listing. Spring Council, Mildred’s daughter, told reporter Matt Talhelm that she and the other owners were at retirement age and revealed  their plans for a new site after the current building is sold. “We said what’s the best thing for us to do?” said Spring Council. “It’s going to be fast-casual, so it will reduce the size of the restaurant and put it out there so other folks can come to Mama Dip’s. Not necessarily making it a destination spot, but a place where people can come from other areas and experience our food.”

Spring Council said they hope to reopen “somewhere else in Chapel Hill as more of a fast-casual or takeout restaurant and franchise the Mama Dip’s brand to open more locations.”

She said their biggest priority moving forward is preserving the Mama Dip’s brand.

“The property is for sale, but not the brand,” Spring Council told Raleigh News & Observer food writer Drew Jackson. “We’re going to keep the brand and switch it out to do a fast-casual model.”

Just what the fast-casual model will turn out to be is not clear, but it is likely to be something quite different from the current arrangement where customers sit down, check the menu, place their orders, wait and visit with other customers while the kitchen staff prepares the meal. Then they eat when the wait staff has served the food.

The new fast-casual model could develop something quite different with less time for the customers at a table and less contact with the serving staff.

Even if the food is as good as Mama Dip’s in the old days, that experience will not be the same and will be jarring for some customers. Keeping them happy may turn out to be as big a challenge as finding a $3.6 million buyer for the property.

Howard is planning similar changes. As I wrote in this column in January, when she reopens Chef & the Farmer she says “We won’t rely on the diners to pay servers; the chefs will serve, cafeteria style, at our retrofitted kitchen bar. The energy we put into elevated service and its trappings will flow directly into the only ‘program’ we have chosen to keep — our food.”

She plans to open just four days a week and will cut costs in other ways.

I wish Howard and Spring Council all the best and look forward to enjoying their special food offerings.

But in the same breath I must warn them that a big part of eating out for many of us is the social experience of enjoying good food with contact with owners, staff, and other customers.

To Howard and Spring Council, good luck and success with your new program, but be careful.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”