One group of Sampsonians is on a mission to ensure a barbecue restaurant closed at the beginning of the month after nearly 70 years does not stay shuttered.
Lewis’ Barbecue, located on Hobbton Highway at the northern edge of Clinton, closed Sept. 2, with owners citing “financial difficulties.” The restaurant, established in 1948 by Rooster and Doris Lewis, was a popular spot operated for years by their son Jimmie Lewis, a stalwart in the community.
“I know everything has an ending,” Lewis told The Sampson Independent this week, “but I’d like to get back.”
A note inside the business noted the financial woes that forced the long-running eatery to be shut down and thanked customers for their support over the years. “It’s been put in God’s hands, and if it is His will, we will reopen,” the note read. An emotional Lewis also left an outgoing message on the business’ phone, again thanking customers for their support, prayers and well-wishes. He said he hoped to reopen if that’s what was meant to be.
Rooster and Doris built their family home on Hobbton Highway some seven decades ago and the restaurant went up next door in quick succession.
“That’s a family business — it’s part of the family,” said Lewis of the barbecue joint some still call Rooster’s. “I was raised in there.”
“It’s been a tough time,” said Lewis, who mentioned the overhead that faces small businesses. “The last 10 years, things have dropped off and there are more eating places in and around Clinton. But when one door closes, God opens another one. It’s all in God’s hands. I have faith, and regardless of what happens, I’ll keep the faith.”
Lewis’ story struck a chord with many in the community, including Steve Boyette, founder and administrator of the “Clinton Sampson County Local History” Facebook page. After seeing the attention that Lewis’ closing garnered among the group, Boyette decided to persuade its 2,000-plus members to aid Lewis and help him reopen his business.
“This is Sampson County — and most Sampsonians will help someone whenever they’re made aware of an opportunity to do so,” said Boyette. “Admittedly, we don’t know Jimmie Lewis’ situation, and we’re reluctant to pry, but we’re hopeful we can help him resolve his back-taxes issue and enable him to reopen his business.”
Sampson County tax records showed $13,760.79 in unpaid tax bills dating back to 2013 for the Hobbton Highway property where Lewis’ Barbecue sits. The kitchen equipment and furnishings have been seized by the taxing agency, but the building has not. The equipment is being left in place to allow an auction to be conducted at the location, which is expected to happen sometime next month. Lewis hopes to buy back the equipment and be in a better position to reopen.
That is where Boyette and others hope to help, getting people to pitch in to keep “one of Clinton’s favorite restaurants” afloat.
“Lewis’ Barbecue was in business longer than many of us have been alive,” said Boyette.
He reached out to Lewis and the two have talked extensively over the past week. The goal is to pay for the equipment and have some cash left over to negotiate a payment plan to catch up on back taxes, Boyette noted. To that end, Boyette’s group has looked into GoFundMe as well as PayPal. GoFundMe skims an amount off the top of anything collected, while there were tax liability concerns with PayPal gifts, Boyette noted.
“I’ve made a request in our local history group that everyone briefly postpone sending donations until we can receive professional guidance from Jimmie’s CPA. We need to know to whom the checks should be made payable, to ensure it doesn’t create additional tax liability,” said Boyette.
“Once they tell us how to proceed, we can go full steam ahead and the fundraiser will begin,” he continued. “We’re trying to cover all our bases and make sure everybody is happy. All of us want to help, but none of us have experience in matters like this.”
Regardless of what it takes, people want to help a man who has always helped others.
Lewis’ Barbecue was the victim of a tough economy over the past decade, compounded by multiple serious illnesses in the family — notably his brother and his sister, for whom he provided financial assistance. Lewis’ sister Kelly Howard succumbed to her battle with cancer several years ago and Lewis’ brother Donald E. Lewis Sr., whom he described as a “jack-of-all-trades” who helped the family business, passed away at the end of last year.
Lewis had his own health issues, forced to hire additional help when he was out of commission due to double knee replacement not long ago. Through the years, it has been about keeping the family business going, while also ensuring his community is safe.
“He knows a thing or two about lending a helping hand because he’s tirelessly served as a volunteer firefighter for 30-plus years,” said Boyette. “It’s a special breed who will drop whatever they’re doing at a moment’s notice and run to the aid of total strangers during an emergency. Jimmie has done just that — even during working hours.”
Lewis paid his employees to take over his duties at the restaurant while he was busy serving his community during some of those times, Boyette noted.
“Well, now it’s Jimmie who’s faced with an emergency,” he stated, “and it’s our turn to drop what we’re doing and come to his aid.”
The interest is there.
“The people who have said ‘count me in’ is impressive,” said Boyette, who has already received two checks for the cause, one in the amount of $100, the other for $50.
Lewis said he wants any money to be put in a fund to be monitored by a third-party, so that should it prove not enough, that the money could be refunded back to those who gave.
“I don’t want people to think I’m trying to get something,” Lewis said. “My hope is to maybe reopen it, but it’s going to take a lot of financial support to do it. I’ve had a lot of people come to me and share the memories they have being in there. They didn’t want it closed down, but some things sometimes can’t be helped.”
“He’s gone to great lengths to make it clear that if something goes wrong, and the needed funds are not raised, that they can get their money back,” Boyette said.
Boyette conceded that he may not be the best advocate, but he hopes to rally support. Until recently, Boyette barely knew Lewis — only “from a distance.” However, in the past week, the two have been in contact through phone, text and email.
“He has my utmost respect,” said Boyette. “There are a lot of people who want to help. I’m really hoping we’ll succeed. I don’t have a dog in this fight and I barely know Jimmie, but none of that matters. All that matters is that we have the opportunity to help a good ol’ boy in Sampson County who has risked life and limb for 30-plus years for his community. If we’re able to pull this off, by God, that’s going to be a good feeling.”
Boyette also has a vested interest in local history, specifically old buildings that house similarly aged businesses. They are a dying breed. For a self-professed amateur historian, Boyette doesn’t want to see another go by the wayside.
“I love old buildings. I have a profound respect for these old mom and pop shops and it hurts to see a business like that closed. It’s like a death in the family,” said Boyette. “I want to preserve our history as much as possible. If I can help somebody in the process, that’s icing on the cake. That’s his mom and dad’s business — it’s worth trying to save. I sure as hell don’t want to see it disappear.”
For more information or to inquire as to how to offer assistance, Steve Boyette can be reached at [email protected] or through the “Clinton Sampson County Local History” Facebook page.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.