Two sons keep their fathers’ dream alive at Bestfood Cafeteria, Hayley Bales

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SILER CITY — Tyler White and Chris Terry have spent the majority of their lives behind the serving line at Bestfood Cafeteria and working in Hayley Bales Steakhouse — starting back in 2003, when their fathers acquired the businesses.

Now, it’s just the two of them.

Chris’s father, Mike Terry, died in 2018 after a lengthy battle with cancer. And Tyler’s father, Art White, died after contracting COVID-19 last August. Now, in the face of grief and loss, Tyler and Chris are carrying on the legacies of their fathers as the faces of two of Siler City’s best-known eateries.

“When you look back on it, it gave our dads a lot of stability to know they had two people under them who cared, knew the sacrifice and could do the work,” Tyler said.

Bestfood Cafeteria and Hayley Bales Steakhouse — located side by side off U.S. Hwy. 64 — have been a part of the Siler City community for decades. Bestfood (which opened in 1989) operates during lunch and dinner service as a more casual dining option, while Hayley Bales (which opened in 1992) serves a more formal dining experience with dinner-exclusive services.

Tyler was in the 4th grade when his and Chris’ father bought the two restaurants. He spent a lot of his late childhood and early adulthood behind the cafeteria line at Bestfood, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant business.

“As soon as my head was over the drink counter, I’d come in and make drinks every now and again,” Tyler remembered.

Chris started working in the restaurants when he was around 14 years old. Even after moving away from Siler City for a couple of years, Chris would come back on weekends and help around the cafeteria. And in 2018, after Chris’ father Mike’s battle with cancer ended — and Chris returned to the cafeteria, working permanently there for the first time — he said he had a hard time adjusting to being there without his dad around.

“The last three or four years of his life, we spent more time together here than at home or anywhere else,” he said. “This place was our time together, so I felt more without him here than I did at home.”

But Chris still had one person he could look up to when he had questions: Art.

And in the three years after Mike’s death, after Art took on the primary roles in handling the behind-the-scenes work (such as ordering food and handling the restaurants’ finances), he and Tyler worked as general managers overseeing employees and day-to-day operations.

Then came the another blow: last August, Art was diagnosed with COVID-19. Tyler — who also had COVID around the same time — ended up having to take his father to the hospital in Chapel Hill for treatment after his condition worsened.

Two weeks later, Art died from COVID complications.

“If I had known that was going to be the last time I saw him, I would have done things differently,” Tyler said. “It was just a whirlwind.”

Arts’ death impacted Chris as well. Now, with Mike and Art both gone, Chris and Tyler were both faced with the new reality that operating and managing Bestfood Cafeteria and Hayley Bales Steakhouse fell totally on their shoulders.

It was a major adjustment, according to Chris.

“You know what needs to be done, but you’re just not used to being the one who has to make sure it gets done,” he said.

Chris and Tyler found themselves doing all the jobs their fathers used to handle — coming into work in the early hours of the morning to prepare for the lunch and dinner service, all the administrative tasks, ordering food, scheduling staff shifts and more. And even though they’d both spent countless hours at Bestfood Cafeteria and Hayley Bales, they found some of the difficulties of the transition overwhelming.

“I don’t know if we really had time to process what happened,” Chris said. “It was mayhem around here, and then Art passed in mid-August and October starts our busy season, so we only really had about a month to try and figure a lot of stuff out.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has changed the restaurant business; Bestfood Cafeteria is no exception. Chris and Tyler had to switch their two dine-in style restaurants into take-out exclusive restaurants, for starters.

“We’re an eat-in restaurant — we had takeout orders before, but it was never at a surplus,” Tyler said. “Most places have a to-go station and a for-here station — we only have one station for both.”

The cafeteria and steakhouse were able to stay open during the pandemic and went back to allowing customers to dine-in when Gov. Roy Cooper allowed restaurants to reopen their doors in late May 2020. However, the takeout line at both is still higher than it was before the pandemic, and Chris said the restaurant has had to accommodate this change.

“When you’ve got 200, 250 plates for eat-in on top of all of the new takeout plates, we had to make some adjustments,” Terry said.

But boosting take-out service is only one way the two men worked to adapt during the pandemic. Bestfood and Hayley Bales have also had to deal with supply chain issues, something particularly critical in a business where timeliness and fresh ingredients are critical.

They say they’ve have had to wait weeks, or even months, to receive backordered items — ranging from salad crackers to Styrofoam containers for to-go orders.

“We get chewed out every single day over a piece of Styrofoam,” Tyler said. “Obviously we’re ordering this stuff, but if we can’t get it, we can’t get it.”

Despite the shortages brought on by the pandemic, though, Chris and Tyler have found comfort in operating the cafeteria and steakhouse and being there on a daily basis. Tyler said after his father died in August, coming to the restaurant helped him to focus on something other than the sadness associated with Art’s absence.

“It’s actually been a relief working here because for a while, I didn’t process much of anything,” Tyler said. “I worked everyday and I could not even think about it. I could not think about anything other than the task at hand and trying to get things done here.”

The support Chris and Tyler say they’ve received from the Siler City community during the pandemic and during the loss of both of their fathers has been extraordinary. Chris said regular customers tell him on a daily basis how much Mike and Art have meant to them.

“We talk to thousands of people a week here, and most of them knew our dads, and they’ve all been really supportive,” Chris said. “We’ve been blessed the last 18 years with the business we have.”

So what’s next for the sons, and for the restaurants?

The Terry-White duo strives to continue their fathers’ dreams of serving up Southern cooking to the community that continues to support the cafeteria, the steakhouse and their fathers’ dreams.

“Right after Art passed, nobody would ask us directly, but they would ask our employees what we were going to do with the business,” Chris said. “We have no intentions of going anywhere, and we want to carry on what our dads left for us.”

While Art and Mike may not be around anymore, their sons work hard to ensure their fathers’ sacrifices and memories are not forgotten, and they hope to remain a part of Siler City for years to come.

“We’re thankful for our position in the community, and we want to carry on our fathers’ legacy the best we can,” Tyler said.

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com.

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