Just about a year ago, a shocked and devastated Joan Wilson stood looking at the charred remains of her much loved eatery, The Waffle Kitchen, and tearfully acknowledged her belief that when God closes one door, he opens another.
This week, Wilson attested to the opening of that door. She was once again standing in the footprint of her restaurant, but this time it was signifying a beginning rather than an ending, as workers prepped an N.C. 403 site just outside of Clinton for a new eatery Wilson and her family hope to open by mid-September or early October.
It will be called The Gristmill, but Wilson assured that while the name is different, everything else about the new restaurant — from its long-time employees and attention to service to the longed-for food and sumptuous desserts — will be what loyal Waffle Kitchen customers have been waiting for since fire destroyed the old building last July 29.
“It’s a new chapter,” Wilson said during an interview earlier in the week, her daughter Jami Tyler by her side. Wilson and husband Wayne own the business and Jami will be manager, just as it was at the Waffle Kitchen. “We changed the name, but people can expect everything else to be just like they liked it, with the same kind of food, the same attention to good service, the same family atmosphere.”
Tyler nods in agreement. “It’ll be what people loved about the Waffle Kitchen but it’ll be even better.”
Recalling the emotions so raw and real hours and days after the fire, which destroyed the Waffle Kitchen and damaged next-door business Dairy Queen, Wilson acknowledged the long and arduous journey that had to be taken to get to the point she now finds herself today.
“It’s been a long road to get here, but we’re here now and we are excited,” she asserted. “Everything is falling into place now. Six months ago, it didn’t feel that way. In fact, it felt like we’d never get to this point …. I had hoped to be back up and running by this time, but things didn’t move as fast as I had wanted. There were times when I wanted to say just forget it, but that would pass. We’ve had to be patient.”
That patience has paid off. Earth has been turned at the 403 site, the pad is in place and a sign signifying the “Future Home of The Gristmill” declares that this project is no longer a dream.
In fact, Wilson and Tyler say they hope the planned 4,200-square-foot eatery will be welcoming customers in just a few short months now. “The wet weather has slowed us up a bit, but now that we’re started, I hope things will move at a good pace. It won’t come fast enough, but we’re getting there now.”
Just after the fire, the Wilsons and Tyler had kept their options open, thinking even that they might be able to return to the original Waffle Kitchen site. “We were waiting to see what would transpire at that property, but at the same time we were looking on our own, too, thinking that we needed a Plan B.”
In the end, the Plan B won out. “We decided to do it on our own because we really wanted more space than what we would have had at the original property,” Wilson said.
That’s when they found the N.C. 403 site and took the first steps toward reopening, including finding a name for the new restaurant.
“I kept telling Wayne we had to come up with a name,” Wilson said, smiling as she recalled the times they had talked about, but not settled on, what to call the establishment. “We went through a bunch of names, but some of them had already been taken. I finally told Wayne, ‘we’ve gotta have a name and quick.’”
On a ride to Goldsboro, Wilson’s husband tossed out the name The Gristmill and, she said, it stuck.
“It just made sense. Gristmill … grits, flour, many of the things we use, and it’s appropriate, too, for Sampson County because of the history of mills here. We’re hoping we can find someone who has a gristmill that we could put inside the restaurant, too. We think that would be fitting,” Wilson said.
And even though customers were used to the U.S. 701 Waffle Kitchen location, Wilson and Tyler believe the new 403 site is going to be a good one.
“In many ways, I think the location will be even better since it is coming off I-40 into Sampson and even right off U.S. 701. For people traveling I think it will be ideal,” Tyler said, adding that the site “is easy to get to.”
Their loyal customers, she said, have already told them they’ll be there, no matter the location, when the doors reopen. And they are hoping that will be the case. If comments are a testament, the pair say, then their customers will return.
“We have so many, many great customers. They’ve been wonderful through it all, they really have,” Wilson attested.
“It’s true,” Tyler interjected. “Everywhere I go, people stop me and ask ‘when are you going to open back up?’ It makes you feel so good to be appreciated that much.”
Whether in the grocery store, drug store or even out of town, Wilson said people will come up to her and ask about the time table for a reopening. “It’s so many people, it’s extremely humbling to know they thought so much of the restaurant and us. I honestly didn’t realize how many people went to the Waffle Kitchen and how much it meant to them.”
Wilson, who just after the fire sought, above all else, prayers for her family and for all of her employees left without a job, said those prayers had been lifted — and had been answered.
“It’s amazing how good God is. I’ve always said, even before the fire, that there’s a reason for everything. We don’t always know that reason, and I didn’t know the reason for the fire, but I knew then and I know now that the Lord was in it.
“The Lord closes one door and opens another. This is that door, and we are very, very thankful,” Wilson said.
While nothing is set in concrete quite yet, Wilson and Tyler expect The Gristmill hours to be much the same as the Waffle Kitchen’s, opening at 5 a.m. and closing somewhere around 1:30 or 2 p.m. seven days a week, with seafood and steaks, along with the famous full breakfast menu, offered on Thursday and Friday evenings from 5 until 8 p.m.
What’s more, Wilson said, her mother, Joyce Hairr, is eager to get back to work, too, baking those delicious desserts that everyone always asks for.
“Mother is coming back. She wants to be back at work some, and I promised her she could be,” Wilson said.
And that will make it a true family business, Tyler said, recalling again her grandfather James, who bought the Waffle Kitchen back in 1996. Hairr and wife Joyce turned the business into a much-loved eatery, where hundreds upon hundreds have gathered to drink coffee and share stories during the morning hours and families have come for Sunday lunch and some of Mrs. Joyce’s famous desserts. Many had designated booths and waitresses; all had a great love for the food and a deeper devotion to the family who served it up day after day. It continued under Wilson’s ownership and Tyler’s management, and word on the street is that love, and that support, will return once the new establishment is up and running.
And customers will be returning to all the things they came to love and expect from the Wilsons.
“Our employees are coming back, Jami will be managing and mother will be in the kitchen. It’ll be just like everyone remembers,” Wilson assured.
And James Hairr will be smiling down from heaven, satisfied that the business he turned into a Sampson County icon will once again be up and running.
“Yeah, he’s smiling,” Wilson said.
“He sure is,” Tyler adds. “He sure is.”