by Ronda Birtha
And not, “neat” as in tidy – although it certainly is the cleanest “grease” truck I’ve ever seen (co-owner Doug Lawhon boasts about the café’s 99.5 sanitation rating). But “neat” as in “good food, and trendy,” as in, “the BEST barbecue I have ever had,” according to my friend Alice who asked if I heard about the new “hot dog truck” in town.
We called them grease trucks back home. On any given corner in the city there would be a fleet of vending trucks lined up serving hot dogs, hamburgers, Chinese, Thai, you name it. They were appreciated when the lunch hour was only half, and when your lunch money didn’t fold up, but jingled. Lack of time and money aside, the quality of the food was what drew regular and loyal crowds at lunch time. Doug’s Café is all of that – minus the grease.
Driving west through the Nantahala Gorge you enter the 4-lane that empties you out into Andrews, NC. Welcoming you, virtually on the town’s leading edge, is Doug’s Café located on the corner of Robbinsville Road and Hwy 19/129. Offering up hot dogs, kielbasas, polish sausage, barbecue, Brunswick stew and more, this Airstream-turned-restaurant is what author and regular customer, Bill Smedlund, calls “the neatest little restaurant in Andrews.”
“And why do you say that?” I ask.
“Because their food is good.” And he drags on the “good” so it comes out like “guuuuud” to emphasize just how good.
Co-owner, and cook Claudia Lawhon calls out to us from inside the trailer that Bill comes from Marble to Andrews at least three times a week for lunch.
Juanita Cutshaw who waits in the car watching the activity while her husband, Joel is at the Café’s order window, also tells me about how “good” the food is. Her favorite – the hot dogs. “All the way. I could eat them every day but my weight and my cholesterol wouldn’t like it,” she says. Juanita knows of people from Robbinsville, NC and Atlanta, GA who make stopping at Doug’s Cafe part of their travel routine. When the 4-lane was built, it made it possible to by-pass the town of Andrews and everything it once had to offer in the way of retail shops and restaurants and the like. However, exciting things are happening again for this tiny community – including being featured in Small Town USA’s first production. According to Facebook, Small Town USA is a documentary that will take the viewer on a road trip across America straight from their living rooms.
I asked the Lawhon’s if there were any special food requests from people in the community.
“We’ve asked, but they just say keep doing what you’re doing. We tried chicken, but nobody wanted chicken. We tried turkey. We had to give samples, then people started loving the turkey. Same with the Brunswick stew. We were going to try sandwiches, we were going to try fish but people really want the hot dogs and the barbecue. We want to stay simple, just keep a simple menu.”
She adds that if anything, people do request that they stay open on the weekends.
Part of the rationale for keeping a simple menu is to accommodate the shift workers who have limited time for lunch, and because of geography may have to spend a small chunk of travel time to get there.
“We have folks come from the egg farm, the trout farm, Judy from the bank, people from Ingles, Ace, Team Industries. We have quite a few regulars. We love the people in Andrews. Just love em’ to death. They supported us through the winter, so that’s who we try to cater to them.”
It is true that Andrews, NC, like many areas, has been slow to recover from the devastating economic downfall of the last decade. But Doug’s Café shows the creativity and ingenuity of folks combining personal interests and talents to make a living.
“Doug has been in construction his whole life, and can build a house. He worked for Pulte Homes, Centex homes (the job he got laid off from in ‘07), and as a handyman for the rich and famous in Palm Beach, Florida.”
The skyrocketing fuel prices contributed to the bottom falling out of the housing market. In 2007 Doug got laid off and Claudia, who was a part time RN returned to full time work. After struggling with a big mortgage in Florida, they sold their Florida home and permanently relocated to Marble, NC, just west of Andrews, for reasons similar to most transplants: simpler life, slower pace, beautiful vistas. But the reality of a stressed economy forced them to explore other avenues for income. After a number of other ventures, including serving as waiters at the now closed and missed Potter’s House, they decided to fall back on what they love most: cooking and entertaining.
“We love to cook, we love to entertain and we love to feed people. One of my favorite things about working is listening to the chatter when all the people come and gather around and start laughing and talking … that’s what I like to do.”
Claudia says she wanted something new: to be her own boss, and to work with her husband, who she describes as “very, very talented. He can build anything. He gutted this whole place, re-fitted it,” speaking about the 1966 Airstream.
Doug however concedes that his major contribution to the Café’s operation is washing dishes. “Never been a recorded case of a husband shot while washing dishes,” he jokes.
Despite that, when they are open, you can see Doug outside chatting with the patrons, writing down orders, giving out samples, and getting feedback – which is always, and overwhelmingly good. Or, should I say, “guuud.”
If you’re ever in far Western North Carolina, be sure to stop off 19/129 in Andrews to Doug’s Café – the neatest little restaurant serving the best BBQ.
Ronda Birtha is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer residing in far, far western North Carolina. She has been an instructor for the Community Folklife Documentation Institute/NC Folklife Institute; and as Project Consultant for the Mountain Work: A Social Commentary documentary, partially funded by a grant from the NC Humanities Council. Samples of her photography and videography can be seen at www.rondabirtha.com. In the five or ten minutes that she has for herself in the course of a day, she continues to work on her first novel – Solace.