Greg Lewis, owner/operator of the now-closed Pittsboro Roadhouse while still operating 39 West catering talks about opening a traditional steakhouse at Chatham Mills.
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Greg Lewis is well-known as the owner/operator of the now-closed Pittsboro Roadhouse and the still-operating 39 West catering business. He’s recently announced plans to re-open a traditional steakhouse restaurant at Chatham Mills. We spoke with Lewis about what it’s been like the past year as the owner of a downtown Pittsboro business, the factors that led him to decide to close the Roadhouse, and other topics.
Let’s start with this: if we made a movie about the Pittsboro Roadhouse’s last 12 months, what would you call it?
Rock & Roll Rollercoaster. Fasten your seatbelts (and wear your mask); it’s going to be a bumpy night and day and night and day and night ...
Who would star as you?
Well, since you asked ... Robert Downey Jr. (There’s an LOL, here.) In younger years, I was often told there’s a physical resemblance. I don’t know about how true that is, but that’s what people would say. (Also, Al Pacino.)
As an Avenger, he got to play Iron Man. As me, he’ll have to play Ordinary (or Regular) Guy.
As Iron Man, he got to wear his iron suit. As Ordinary Guy, he’ll have to put on an apron and carry his spatula and shield of faith. Faith is definitely part of my armor.
In Iron Man 3, he was dealing with anxiety and insomnia. To be completely honest, recent months have brought on significant worry and I am definitely not sleeping much, these days. I am up all hours trying to figure out the move out of the Roadhouse while renovating the new space, working out contracts, leases, permits, etc. All while doing what’s possible to keep some revenue flowing.
Obviously, things are changing. Let’s start with the restaurant operation. Walk us through your decision to close the Roadhouse and relocate, and change up your approach to “restauranting”…
At the beginning of the year, we were still trying to work out a long-term lease with our landlord. We loved being in the center of town and what we were doing at the Roadhouse. Our desire was to keep it going for another 15 years. We made some offers in the year leading up to this one to get 10 years beyond the five-year option we still had, but when we weren’t hearing anything back, we began to think relocating would be a necessity. We started considering other spaces.
At the same time, we were thinking about opening a steakhouse in Pittsboro. This would be in addition to maintaining the Roadhouse.
Without getting too much into the details, though we were eventually offered a lease, it was not for the number of years we were asking and, during COVID-19, we just couldn’t afford the yearly increase in rent that was to start in September. As with so many other restaurants and small businesses, we were working as hard as we could, against revenue-losing restrictions, to meet our current lease obligations. Though we were just able to meet our current obligations, an increase in rent at this time with a decrease in allowable occupancy would have been an impossible challenge. Also, in the new lease, we would be losing our much-needed parking lot. The writing was on the wall.
Fortunately, since we had already been considering a steakhouse location, and had serendipitously met Tom Roberts, the owner of Chatham Mills, we were able to quickly move forward with a new concept. Tom has been exceedingly understanding of the challenges restaurants are facing today and is working with us in every manner possible to bring our new and exciting concept to Pittsboro. It has been a relief and a pleasure to be working with Tom.
What can we expect from the new place?
Great steak! Creative Cocktails and maybe a lounge singer or two...
We are moving into the former Oakleaf, and then Pickle Jar, space. You might see a few physical elements that remain the same, but even those will be reworked. There will be traditional steakhouse offerings and we will offer creative items on our Special Features menu which will highlight local. We are adding a lounge space, but do not yet know when that will be ready for service.
In the meantime … catering has always been a big part of what you do. How is that part of your operation going, and moving forward?
39 West has started to see some activity after a sudden and complete stop in March due to the pandemic. It was scary. In one day, within hours, we lost the majority of our spring events ... then all of them canceled.
Catering is still slow for now, but people are starting to book very small events.
In our new venture, we will have a separate kitchen and offices dedicated to 39 West. Once the new kitchen is up and running, we will again offer our family meals for pick-up. And, we are thrilled to announce that we will now have a separate catering venue, Forest Hall, and will be taking over operations this month. We are already beginning to show the space and book events for 2021.
Something some of us know — but maybe not many — is your commitment to feeding the hungry in Chatham County and working through non-profits to serve free meals. How did that get started and how have you managed to continue that through the pandemic?
Since 2014, with the amazing, longstanding commitment of Pittsboro and Chatham County citizens, we have been able to provide meals to our seniors on Sundays. Because of pandemic restrictions and concern for the health of our recipients, we are not currently permitted to continue delivering these meals. So, we considered a new need — students and their families who did not have access to the meals available at the schools.
We started working with one public school, then Shari Becker from Panda Packs, and then other public elementary and middle schools. The teachers and local volunteers coordinated with us and functioned as the connection points and delivery personnel, delivering hundreds of meals weekly. As numbers, therefore, costs increased, many teachers donated monetarily to the cause. Our own children were, and are, educated through the Chatham County school system, so this was no surprise. We know first-hand the amount of commitment and compassion our teachers and school staff genuinely have for our students. And it didn’t stop when the schools closed.
In the beginning, we were able to donate all of the meals. As the numbers increased, we needed to ask for donations from the community, and as our neighbours always do, they responded generously. Many made monetary donations, while businesses such as KaLi’s Desserts and Lil’ Rooster Farms donated desserts and produce. Recently, Angelina’s Kitchen made a generous donation of produce.
Once schools closed, we worked with local non-profits such as Communities In Schools of Chatham County, CORA (Chatham Outreach Alliance) and Sustainable Prosperity to see that meals continued to be provided.
We often get to be the face, but I hope you can tell, sooo many others are involved in this outreach.
As a business owner and vocal proponent for downtown Pittsboro, share your thoughts and impressions from this past year or so … starting with the protests around the Confederate monument issue and then the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s been enlightening? Disappointing? Surprising? Encouraging?
When the protest and counter-protests first started, we supported the right to peacefully protest. What became discouraging, however, was being told that the intent of some was to put out of business those which did support their cause. It became especially concerning when it looked as though they might succeed.
Business on Hillsboro Street slowed as visitors and loyal customers alike were nervous about coming downtown and witnessing hateful words and sometimes violent acts. What has been encouraging was to see the peaceful rallies — one student-led — around the Black Lives Matter cause. We understand that all lives matter but this cannot be true until our actions, not just our words, show that Black and brown lives are included in the “all.” It has been particularly encouraging to see the large number of people within our community that share this sentiment.
As to COVID-19, that was the big surprise of 2020! We are still dealing with it. It continues to be a challenge that we are all facing in all facets of life.
What was not surprising was how the community rallied around us and all small businesses in the early days of the shutdown.
This past year has shown me how creative and resilient our Pittsboro businesses are. I do not know if the protesters realized, but I do think most people realized without our downtown businesses, there really is no Pittsboro.
And your staff?
There have been many wonderful people on our staff that have grown into a Roadhouse family. Some have worked for us all through the eight years while for others it was, perhaps, a summer job. But they all have touched us and helped to mold The Roadhouse in the local community. They volunteered at Summer Fest, delivered meals, served freely and with pleasure after the Christmas Parade at our Community Christmas Party. This was more than just a business to us and more than just a job for them. They are great, good-hearted people and have stuck with us, working hard seeing us through the closing.
It is especially difficult at this time to see so many still out of work. Others, thankfully, have found employment. Some will find new life and adventures in our new concept. There are many emotions we are feeling at this time — and love and compassion for The Roadhouse family are two of them. We wish each one well, whatever ROAD they choose.
Today while walking through the empty space I was thinking of many wonderful and challenging times. It is sad to end this chapter but exciting to begin again.
How will what you do in the restaurant change as the result of the pandemic?
We will be seating fewer people and following the COVID-19 guidelines. However, restaurants in general, already had the proper precautions in place to handle the new virus. Add masks and social distancing, and we were ready to go.
As for the Roadhouse ... I would like to assure everyone who purchased gift cards from the Roadhouse that these will be honored at our new locations. You will be able to redeem these at both the steakhouse and 39 West.
And if you have not heard this before to all of those who frequented the Roadhouse: Thanks for the memories!