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Regicide or Abdication: The Passing of the King

Once upon a time, in the land of Durham, in the dominion called Ninth Street, there lived a King. He stood, or perhaps squatted, at the base of a hill, and rarely cast his eyes upward at the revolutions taking place above him. Indolent, he remained there with no concern for conquest, his interest confined to keeping his people content. And so he did for more than 25 years, reigning as modernity crept in around him. Only in the last years, when the castle was crumbling and pretenders to the throne thronged the hillside, did the King recognize his impending doom. Yet he strove on, preserving the Kingdom's way of life until the end. When it came, it came swiftly. The King was gone, his realm desolate, and all that remained was the writing on the wall: "Biscuit King has moved to Charlie's Neighborhood Bar & Grill."

Biscuit King's fall came 28 years after Earl Mize started the restaurant in the white and blue, cement and brick structure on the corner of Ninth and Green. The founder and latter-day patron saint--for years his face, captured in a black and white photograph, looked down through framed glass upon the cash register--rented the property and started serving down-home Southern food for breakfast and lunch. When he retired in the late '80s, control passed to his daughter Bonny and her husband Jerry Turner. Together, they ran Biscuit King until it closed at the end of February.

Large and black-clad, Jerry would wander in from the kitchen, rubbing his bushy brown beard and chatting with regulars sipping sweet tea at the picnic tables and rickety booths in the dining area. Bonny would work the cash register, taking orders for breakfast in a bowl or a sweetshot chicken biscuit, the sweetshot being a type of sweet and sour barbecue sauce the Turners first used on food at home before introducing to grateful diners at the King. At times, in the good old days, the breakfast and lunch crowds would stretch out the door as working class locals (both white and black), medical center employees, graduate students and fraternity brothers would gather for a barbecue fix, fresh biscuits or hangover-curing tea. One longtime customer who married a vegetarian and "converted" would phone in whispered orders for clandestine sweetshots--Yes, I'm leaving now and will be there to pick it up in ten minutes. Inside the keep, all were family and all were well fed.

The Old West Durham in which the Turners first operated was different from today's. The area had been a mill town, with the Erwin cotton mill the most powerful king, lording over the neighborhood from the hill west of Ninth Street. With the mill as the chief source of employment for nearly a century, the neighborhood was working class and the stores on Ninth Street reflected it: McDonald's drug store, White Star laundry, numerous small grocery stores and, of course, Biscuit King. In 1986, the mill closed and the neighborhood's economy collapsed.

Boarded-up windows and abandoned stores stood as testaments to the plague that had befallen Ninth Street. Since then, the area has been the locus of Durham's redevelopment, as stores and restaurants targeting a Duke University and Medical Center clientele have turned the district into an echo of Chapel Hill's Franklin Street.

"Ninth Street has been transformed into a very vibrant, eclectic pedestrian shopping community and restaurant row," says Glenn Dickson vacantly, perhaps reading from a chamber of commerce brochure somewhere in his mind. Dickson is in the position to discuss the changes on Ninth Street because he too is part of a neighborhood dynasty--his father owned property on the block between Markham and Green streets since the mid-'70s and he has worked there ever since.

David Dickson established DataFlow Companies, a computer outfit that specialized in medical technology and organization, in 1975, in the building across the street from where Biscuit King would soon hold court. Over the years his company expanded and so did his dreams. He bought up the land all along the block as it became available--including one business because it was freeloading and using spaces in his parking lot--in the hope that one day the area would live up to the sign outside the DataFlow building: "DataFlow Computer Plaza." Dickson hoped to turn the block into a high-tech haven and lease to other computer firms.

Instead, tech companies flocked to the southeast of Durham, Research Triangle Park. DataFlow followed suit after Dickson sold it in 1994.

Among the properties Dickson had acquired was Biscuit King. When the previous owner--from whom Mize was leasing--sold it in the mid-'80s, both Dickson and Mize put in bids. Dickson's was higher. So the King began paying rent to the neighboring dynasty.

And yet there was no impressive treaty negotiation between the two empires. No heraldic jousting. No princely pavilions. No elaborate signing ceremony. The lease was a handshake.

Each month, both parties could renew the lease, and there were no contractual obligations beyond that. The rent was set at the going market rate of the time--and then literally never increased. While Ninth Street was undergoing a renaissance, the Turners were still paying dark ages rates.

Dickson was happy with the tenant King; it became a de facto cafeteria for his 60 employees and the rent more than covered the property taxes and insurance on a piece of land he planned to use someday. Jerry's parents lived across the street from Dickson and their friendship affected the non-lease's terms. Tom Turner was a launderer who got out even the toughest stains. Once David brought Tom a dozen badly stained custom shirts and asked if there was anything that could be done about them. Tom said, "Can I have them for two months?" David said sure, they were of no use to him as badly stained as they were. Two months later they returned, and to David's amazed eye looked brand new, fresh from the store. He offered his neighbor $100, then $200, for the work performed. Tom waved him off.

So when the younger Turner became Dickson's tenant at Biscuit King, generous rent was a wave back. When Dickson asked the Turners to pay the tax assessment on the property as is the standard practice and the tenants said they couldn't afford it, Dickson waved that off too. They were friends, practically kin, the two dynasties tied in bonds of feudal loyalty. And besides, Dickson didn't have any plans for the property anyway.

Yet once Dickson sold his company and held onto the land, the situation changed. The Dicksons were suddenly landed gentry: Their property was now their livelihood.

They studied and acquired real estate licenses and began plotting a strategy for their territory in a spin-off company called DataFlow Leasing. In the summer of 2001, with phase one of the plan--a 24,000-square-foot office-and-retail facility on the site of the old DataFlow building--under construction, Glenn Dickson, DataFlow Leasing's vice president, sought an audience with the King and announced that the reign would be ending... possibly in as little as six months. Phase two, a similar but doubly large facility, was planned for the King's lot and the one adjoining it.

Yet the King was granted reprieve in an unlikely way. That fall, terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, shaking investor confidence and precipitating a national recession.

Closer to home, the Streets at Southpoint Mall opened the following spring, drawing business away from Ninth Street. With interest in leasing space in phase two flagging, Dickson informed the Turners every six months or so that the King could remain in power yet another six months--the minimum time a major construction project takes between pre-leasing and using the property. "If we were from Texas, we could piss anybody off and get out of here, but we live here," Glenn Dickson laughs by way of explanation for the frequent warnings. In December of 2003 he told the Turners that the King was safe until at least April of 2004.

So while sitting in his temporary-seeming office in a one-floor storefront next to the King in Jan. 2004, Dickson was greeted with a shock. The King was abdicating. The Turners would leave at the end of February. They did not want to extend the lease.

The Yuletide cheer had turned to gloom on the Turners' farm up in Caswell County, 45 minutes northwest of Durham. Their personal credit card bills were littered with expenses from the business and Bonny had stopped drawing a salary to keep the King's treasury solvent. Business just hadn't been as good since the recession started. "Biscuit King people lost a lot in stocks," Jerry says, his warm blue eyes registering mournful surprise. "I thought we had a lot of normal people, but a lot of them lost money."

And now Biscuit King's roof was leaking in multiple places. When it rained or snowed, water droplets pierced the grease-infused air of the restaurant before dropping into buckets sitting on tables and the floor. Plop... Plop... Plop... the King's time ticking away.

April, the cruelest month, would be coming before long and the Dicksons would not pay for the repairs--the benefit of a handshake lease for a landlord is that building maintenance is not his responsibility. And even if the Turners had the money, why invest in a property they could lose in four months.

Moving was impossible. Rents in the area ranged from $3,000 per month to even more than the $5,000 Dickson had offered for a spot in Ninth Street North... and the Turners were struggling with their unleavened rent that was still under $1,000. Trying to operate in a new property would mean staying open for dinner and weekends: Moving would mean sacrificing a lifestyle for the Turners, who closed the King at 1:30 p.m. each weekday.

Biscuit King would be gone from the throne. Bonny supported immediate abdication, but Jerry wanted to keep the King in power until the end of February. There were a lot of old friends who'd want to stop by the receiving line.

And so early in January, Bonny walked the 30 yards up the street to Dickson's office and knocked gently on the locked glass door. Dickson stood up abruptly and smiled at the unexpected visitor. Yet the smile froze on his face when she said the King would be closing and they'd have to "get out before the building falls down." They looked at each other--the son and the daughter of the parties to the great handshake, one a Tar Heel and the other a Blue Devil fan, possessing his-and-hers southern drawls--and he said he was sorry to hear it. And then she left.

Word that the King was falling soon spread throughout town. Neighbors and friends came together to mourn its passing. Hotheads spoke of chaining themselves to the structure. Everyone came to start filling up on garbageburgers and strawberry biscuits before it was all gone.

One of those who came was Mike Cole. He wandered a block down the street from his own restaurant, Charlie's, a relative baby on Ninth Street. He approached the great bear behind the counter and said dolefully, "Where am I gonna eat my breakfast now?"

Jerry smiled sadly and replied, "I guess you'll have to eat at the Hardee's like everyone else." But Cole had no taste for Hardee's low-carb breakfast bowl; he wanted the King. So he made Jerry an offer he couldn't refuse. Come cook breakfast at my restaurant.

And so it was decreed, Biscuit King would live on in spirit and in cholesterol at Charlie's. The Dicksons came in one final time in the King's last week. After years of paying for food there, they had their money turned down as the Turners gave a wave of thanks. And on the last Friday in February, as snow melted and the dirty water dripping into buckets made a final countdown, the King played host to its own wake. The Sigma Chis who had been frequenting the restaurant since the 1980s came out in numbers and a Duke history class came out to observe the proceedings. And then the Turners turned the lock on the big glass doors. The King was no more.

So Jerry traded hats. Literally. From his ubiquitous dark blue foam hat with "Biscuit King" in yellow lettering to a dark blue foam hat with "Hillsborough Tire Company--Michelin" in yellow lettering. He's again in a restaurant dining area decorated with Duke basketball paraphernalia. But the posters are not yellowed and dog-eared, like the posters that once hung in the King; Charlie's decorations are massive and framed... and generic. He glances at the lunchtime rush of professionals, noticing a few old friends dotting the crowd--conspicuous because their Biscuit-King-menu food comes in plastic baskets and not on real plates. He smiles wanly and says, "A man's gotta work." He walks back into the kitchen.

"This place is so different," whispers Kim Wilson, who also worked at Biscuit King before Cole invited her to follow Turner up the street. At the King she'd take orders and money at the cash register and call out the order when it was ready--or deliver it for special customers. But at Charlie's, she flits around the tables, stopping to chat with a group of old King regulars before delivering a tray of sweet teas and hugging a couple of old friends on their way out the door. Short and effusive, she's a big part of the relocated King family. Greeting the old customers, she's a conduit to Turner, who generally stays busy in the kitchen.

The transition is difficult for Jerry too. Surrounded and helped by a Salvadorian kitchen staff that calls him the Biscuit King Bandito, Turner serves the full Biscuit King breakfast until 10:30. Then the kitchen switches over to lunch production and the King lunch menu complements the pre-existing Charlie's fare. Turner's Spanish hasn't progressed much beyond amigo, but he is learning how to work with others in the kitchen. "Still, when they cut up and are carrying on, I wish I understood," he says. "I figure they're talking about me because they're speaking Spanish."

Jerry's big regret is that Bonny took the demise of Biscuit King as an opportunity to retire and catch up on years of missed chores around the farm. For the first time in 18 years he's making his lengthy commutes without her, and he jokes about getting her back working again. Bonny, however, doesn't mind sleeping until the sun appears over the horizon--much later than the 2:30 a.m. risings she endured and Jerry seemed to enjoy.

She misses the old friends and everyone who supported Biscuit King up until the end. And she flips through her "Butter on Both Sides" book--named for a man who would always order a biscuit with butter on both sides--a collection of customers' idiosyncrasies and sayings the Turners collected over the past 18 years. Eighteen years of running a business like no business could be run in America today. Eighteen years of serving community as a free side. Eighteen years of cooking the best food they knew without regard to price.

"I think that was me and Jerry's problem," she says. "Feeding everybody too good. We gave big portions and fed everybody the way we'd want to eat."

The old customers trickle into Charlie's because the food remains mostly intact, but if "Butter on Both Sides" walks in and orders, his server probably won't get it.

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