Debbie Holt, owner of Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue in Raleigh, NC. Part of a project documenting barbecue in North Carolina for the Southern BBQ Trail. Project by The Barbecue Bus: Rien Fertel (interviewer) and Denny Culbert (photographer). Visit www.southernfoodways.org for more.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Debbie Holt
Date: November 22, 2011
Location: Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue – Raleigh, NC
Interviewer: Rien T. Fertel
Photographer: Denny Culbert
Rien Fertel: All right; this is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. I am continuing on the North Carolina Southern BBQ Trail. It is Tuesday afternoon, November the 22nd, 2011. And I’m sitting in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina at Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue and I’m going to be talking to Debbie Holt, the owner and possibly her husband, too. He might step in; his name is Randy Holt. I’m going to have her introduce herself first, please.
Debbie Holt: Hi; I’m Debbie Holt, co-owner with my husband Randy at Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue, Raleigh, North Carolina, 109 East Davie Street.
Let’s talk about how old Clyde Cooper’s is. It’s extremely old. When was it founded?
The building was built in 1884. Clyde Cooper started Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue on January the 1st, 1938 with fifty dollars in his pocket.
And who was Clyde Cooper?
Clyde Cooper was a man who decided he wanted to start a venture in barbecue and he knew something about barbecue and he tried to get several loans and nobody would give him a loan. And I think a brother-in-law loaned him the fifty dollars to start this business. And he started it and he kept it for fifty years, and something that I think is fascinating is that he was the only key-holder of this business for fifty years. So he never laid out for fifty years.
Who took it over [from] him?
After his fifty years of owning Clyde Cooper’s he decided to sell it to a very close friend of mine that used to come every Saturday and worry Clyde to death about selling him the business. And Clyde really I don’t think even thought that a twenty-something year old was serious. My friend was a builder, so why did he want to go from a builder to a restaurant owner? But he really sincerely wanted the business. And after many years of him worrying Clyde, Clyde sold it.
And you still continued to see Clyde, although he sold the business in ’88, ’89. How often did you see him?
Gosh; he would probably come to Cooper’s sometimes at least two times a week, sometimes three times a week, and he would sit at the same booth over there [Gestures] to the right or at the chair right there at the cash register and sit there and tell me all his stories. I would ask him about his recipes and what made the Brunswick stew special, and he told me. And a lot of times, Tony, the owner who bought it from Clyde, never even would let anybody know what the secret recipe to the Brunswick stew was. But Clyde let me write down the recipes. And so that’s the pretty cool thing about this restaurant is it’s extremely simple.
And what are some of the stories Clyde would tell you?
Well, I thought he was a ladies’ man. He was a super sweet man, very kind; he loved to joke. He was a big jokester, pranks all the time, jokes all the time, but some of my little funny stories that I remember him telling me was about all his women that he had a room up there at the Sir Walter Hotel which is a very old, historical place in downtown Raleigh. And there was a liquor store right around the corner. And on the weekends when he was winding down his weekend, the bell man, he would call the bell man and tell him to get his room ready and his women ready and the bell man would call him back and say “Clyde, I got your bottle, I got your women, I got everybody on standby.” So when he closed he went up there and he threw down. And that was pretty much it. And everybody knew Clyde for being the kind, fun-loving soul that he was. And that’s what I remember about him. I never saw him be rude, hateful, ill, edgy, anything; he was always a jokester.
Did he ever tell stories about the first fifty years in business?
Yeah; he told me that he was one of the first business owners that ever let colored people come in the front door. He said he wasn’t going to have them going to the back. At that time in restaurants whites were on one side; the blacks were on the other side. And he wasn’t going to have that. And that he actually broke all I guess records for that in the early 1960s. And he didn’t care; he was a good soul. He didn’t see people of color.
And do any other stories come to mind?
No; not really. I just know he was a partier; he always had something to say. I always felt like he talked more junk than a two-dollar radio. And that’s what I remember about him. But the cool thing was that he had such pride about this restaurant and he was always so proud of it. And I think he was really proud whenever he referred to Tony many times as a youngster. And he was proud that he wanted it but yet, it’s funny; the parallel of Clyde and Tony were very similar, into personality. So Tony, the reason I was brought in was because he was way too confined. And so I came in and ran it for him for five and a half years. And then I got married and a couple of years later got pregnant and I hadn’t worked in thirteen years and my husband and I nagged Tony again, just like probably he nagged Clyde but probably not as persistent. I just made, you know, little hints every now and then and said, you know, when you get tired of it let me know. You don’t love it like you should love it. And so all in all it’s funny how things come back to you and we bought it.
And that’s when you took it over, August three years ago?
Uh-hm; yeah. And he had changed some of the things. And the cool thing was that I still had my old recipes. And so there were some variations like in the vinegar and the hushpuppy mix and certain things and we put them back to the way that Clyde had them. So it’s exactly the way Clyde had it, food-wise. The thing about the food here and Clyde used to tell me, it was funny to him how people always did so much to barbecue when we do so little and it’s so good. He said that’s the key—it’s true Eastern Carolina style barbecue—barbecue that just has a kiss, “A kiss of vinegar,” and that’s what Clyde used to always say. He said sometimes people would try to come up and make his recipes, couldn’t match it, and they put everything in it. It’s only got a few little items and that’s it.
And you described him as a ladies’ man. What did he look like when you knew him; what was his voice like?
He was tall, thin, and lanky and had a raspy voice, like a heavy smoker would but I don’t know if he even smoked. He never smoked around me. But pretty much that; I remember he aged just like a well-defined old man, you know, tall. I think Clyde was probably about six-four. He was about six-four but he was lean. That’s pretty much what I remember. I remember him to this day because I took a picture of him and this is him right before he was in this position, tall, lanky, walking with a cane for I bet five years and then he ended up going to a skilled living facility. And that’s where he passed away at.
And the picture you’re talking about is on the front of the menu, the picture you took. What year was this taken?
That was probably taken back in 1990, maybe. Across the street from Cooper’s there used to be a vacant car lot, McLaurin Parking Lot, and it was all gravel. They had like a hill of gravel in the corner of it and I remember climbing that hill to try to get the best picture because I wanted Clyde and the top of the building too because if you ever look at the menu, there’s a copper pig on top of it, and that copper pig I bought at the flea market for like sixty bucks because it was a pig. And then I went and spent like thirty dollars for a drill back then that would drill down twenty feet, I mean I’m sorry, twenty inches down in the brick so I could put it on top of Cooper’s. And so I was trying to incorporate all of it and there happened to be a policeman coming by on a horse and I thought that was really cool. So he hopped off because he was going to tie his horse up to the metal piece that was surrounding the tree and I asked him if he would kind of stand there and let me get a picture of him and him kind of keep an eye on Clyde. And I asked Clyde to wave at me and he waved, so that’s my picture. And then on the inside of the menu the “Welcome to Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue,” I remember writing that. So that was pretty instrumental in this picture right here. That picture of Clyde’s face is the face that I remember at the end of my time here when he sat in the chair and talked to me.
And when did he die?
He died February 12, 1998.
So he almost—?
Almost lived to be 100, yeah; and he ate barbecue as much as he could. They used to come by Cooper’s and pick up barbecue. After I left I understand he ate barbecue. And at the end of his time I think he wasn’t maybe able to eat barbecue but as long as I knew Clyde could eat, he was eating barbecue. And he was always so proud of this place.
And let’s talk about the building that we’re in. You told me a bit about the history yesterday. Can you tell me again?
The building was built in 1884; it was up for auction, and I believe that’s when Clyde bought this building. It’s just an old building. It’s two stories; I think it would be 3,000-square feet on each level or 2,700 roughly on each level. The upstairs houses our two pits that are custom-built by Nunnery-Freeman. A lot of times people say, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like it.” And they’re cool. They work awesomely. You always keep your parts on hand for it. This business has grown an awful lot. When Clyde had it, Clyde did caterings and that’s phenomenal for back in that era. And for the small kitchen that it had because if you look at those pictures over there on the wall [Gestures] those are all caterings that Clyde did and that’s mass quantities of food, if you think that they got barbecue and they might have got chicken. I don’t know. But that’s a lot of food. So this business has grown with Tony and with us because we’ve incorporated better equipment, bigger equipment, bigger ice machines; we’re just rolling out the food. But we wanted to keep it going with the caterings because Clyde was doing something like on a smaller scale. He was doing mass quantities of people though and he had his trucks and he was dominating in the barbecue business. That to me, back in that time, was really extremely exceptional if you think about a small business back then when your sandwich was thirty cents and you’d go out there and you’d feed like hundreds of people and I’m not talking like 100 or 200. I’m talking about 500, to 600, to 700, to 800 people. Clyde Cooper was whipping out some barbecue. So the really cool thing is that I think he functioned greatly in this restaurant, and then since then, it was during his time that he came up with these cookers from Nunnery-Freeman. Tony has kept them going; we’ve kept them going. And that’s just how important it is, so he came up with a good solution on cooking some barbecue overnight, mass quantities of it, and producing for the demand. And I think that’s phenomenal back in his time because he had that projection in his brain on how to do it. And then we’ve just kept it going and grew the business.
Tell me what you barbecue here.
Okay; we only cook shoulders and the reason you want shoulders and Clyde used to do hams at times, and we’ve done it too. But the thing about a shoulder it’s much more leaner and the important part about it was it’s all hand-done and you pick out everything gross in it and you only chop up the meat. The one reason Clyde didn’t never do whole hog was because number one, he could have; it was cheaper. You can get a lot more yield off of the whole hog, but the problem is that you’re eating a lot of junk in it. And you don’t want to be noted for serving junk in your barbecue because then that runs your business out. So he always did the shoulders and the hams and because it was really lean and all hand-done and he prided his self on that. And to this day it’s done the very same way that Clyde did it, only Clyde cooked behind his house and would bring it here, before the Health Inspector stopped him. So then he had to start cooking upstairs.
When was that? When did that happen?
Back when he started in 1938; he had a guy named “Boss” Faison that was his cook. And they used to cook in a shed behind his house, and his house was on Chapel Hill Road, outside past the Fair Grounds on the left. And he had a barn back there and that’s where he cooked all his meat and transported his meat up here. But the Health Department changed that because you can’t cook off premises like that. You got to cook in your restaurant, so that’s how the pits and everything came about upstairs.
And so seventy-three years in business, how has Clyde Cooper’s survived that long? What does it take?
You know, good, clean food; that’s it. We don’t run specials. We do the same thing that Clyde did. The menu has not deviated a whole lot. We did improve the ribs. I don’t think Clyde had ribs back then, but yet he had beer and we don’t have beer. And there was a reason he quit selling beer was because he just got tired of people aggravating him. But the thing about the food is that it’s good clean food at a good price. We do not take charge cards and the reason we don’t take charge cards is because you’ve got to pay too many people to have that. And then our prices would have to go up and that’s not fair either. So we try to keep everything down and as close and reasonable as possible. Even out catering prices, our catering prices beat anybody’s prices around here and our buffet pick-ups start at $5.95 for ten or more people. Who can do that? But we do it. And the food is just clean, simple food—clean food. The fried chicken is awesome. The important thing about the fried chicken is that you got to make sure that you’ve got your grease just right because what happens is it cooks—if you have it too hot then you’ve cooked the outside hard and left it raw in the middle. But if you have the grease just right then it’s almost like steaming the inside, cooking it out, and it’s making it a moist and juicy, so we have really good fried chicken. We have awesome ribs. We won an award with it. It took us about two years to tweak those. We just now went to go to NC State Food Science Department to get our barbecue sauce ready for market, because we have so many people that want our rib sauce. And I make that. And so that’s different than Clyde but I think Clyde would have liked it. He grew the business a lot and it’s kind of rolled over from Tony to us. But it’s really the same thing.
Did Clyde also have fried chicken?
Yes; he did, he did. Clyde had a very simple menu though and this is really it. This is his menu except for the corn and butterbeans I don’t think he had. He always had boiled potatoes and French fries and coleslaw and Brunswick stew. The collards were added, but he always had steamed cabbage. He did not have banana pudding. He had lemon pie and carrot cake. We brought in the banana pudding because that’s a good old Southern thing. Pretty much that’s it.
So one thing that is on the menu and I’ve spent about twenty-four hours here at the restaurant [Laughs] and a bag of skins is on the menu and you see a lot of skins in the kitchen; near the cash register there’s bags and bags. Tell me about that.
Skins are a staple. People get an attitude if you don’t have skins. It is a phenomenal thing. We go through skins like people would not believe and we have people that drive here from you would not believe. I had one man come from Lumberton, one man from Sanford; one guy bought forty-five bags. He made his wife buy her own four bags because he wasn’t going to share. Those were for his poker buddies. I mean you would not believe it. And the cool thing is that Clyde only had two types of skins. He had the regular skins, the pork rinds, and he had the shoulder skins. The shoulder skins are like heavens of gold. They are the skin off the shoulders that we cook. The meat is so tender the skin will just slide right off of it. After it’s done you take and clean the fat and mess out of the skin and then re-fry it. So you have like a thicker, harder skin and it is like to die for. People love those. . . . But we have to have skins. People get an attitude if you don’t have skins. And they expect skins with their sandwich. They get skins with everything. It’s just a perk.
Does anyone ever order skin on a sandwich?
No. No, because they know they’re going to get basket of skins; you know a few skins come with your sandwich. Yeah; and they all get excited like we have people that come—. The cool thing about Clyde Cooper’s, and I’ll have to get into this part with it because we’re struggling here wanting to buy the building. When we bought Cooper’s Tony was doing a deal with a developer. And we knew that there may come a time when we have to move but we figured downtown was over-built. There was so much vacancy that we really weren’t worried about it. Well right now we’re kind of stressing over it a little bit. The point that I’m making is that I’ve learned something about Clyde Cooper’s. It’s not always about the money. Clyde made a lot of money. Tony made a lot of money. Inflation has gone up; Cooper’s Barbecue has always prevailed and stayed here. We’ve never closed. This business never closed down because of economy. The economy didn’t ever affect us. But now we’re—the only part that worries us is that we end up may have to move. And the reason we’ve changed on that area because at first we thought, “Well, you know, if we have to go, we have to go.” But since we’ve been here I got back to where I was twenty years ago which was this place means something to way too many people. So when people come to get the skins and the sandwich they know what they’re expecting. They expect the old building with the old booths with the old everything and they don’t want it to change. And now we don’t want it to change because I realized that now it’s not a money thing. It’s a noble thing. So we have people that come from Jacksonville, Florida that will spend the night overnight to come and eat our food, go back, and we have people that go to the hockey games from all over everywhere and come in here to eat with us. We fed Georgia Tech Band. We did U2 on their jet. We did Creed, the band. We have so many—it’s not only celebrities; it’s just people. People love Cooper’s but they love it because it’s an old established, privately owned business. And they don’t want us to go anywhere. So the skins, the building, everything needs to stay exactly like it was and that’s what we’re fighting for.
Can you tell me more about that what the fight is over exactly with the building?
There is a developer that would like to tear down Cooper’s and put an apartment building here. Back four or five years ago I think he approached Tony and the deal was it was supposed to be the Edison, which was going to be a really big high-rise building. Well if you look at the economy the way the economy has done, downtown has got a lot of vacancies. There’s a lot of buildings down here that are for sale, a lot of apartments that are not leased, a lot of condos that are not sold. So they kind of came back and recanted all that and now they want to do a six-story apartment building right here. And so, what we’re hoping is that it will make the contract null and void in some way with the owner of this building. And the owner of this building is actually a very close friend of mine. That’s how I came about this business and I think now he realizes the importance in selling me this building and we will end up having to pay a lot to do it, but it’s like the noble, right thing to do because once you’re here and you’re at that cash register and when you meet people that came from Seattle, Washington and when you meet people that came from Hungary, that came from Finland, that came from all over everywhere and they’ve heard about Cooper’s and they want to come and eat or they’ve got a child going to NC State and they’ve got to come to Cooper’s because they’re way out of state somewhere this is where they all come. And when you see those faces and you hear those people and they didn’t know Clyde; they just know that it’s an old privately owned business that’s been here for seventy-three years, it means something. And then all of the sudden you realize, “Hey, you know what? It’s not about a new building. It’s not about this.” It’s about keeping it and preserving it, so now that’s our fight. And I’m hoping that my good friend will sell me this business, this building. And I’ve talked to him today and I said to him, I said, you know, “Please sell me this business. It means a lot to me.” And he said to me, “I know it does.” So that means something to me that he acknowledged that he knows it means something to me. So I’m hoping that it’ll prevail.
Why does Clyde Cooper’s mean so much to you?
Because I knew Clyde and I knew what he stood for. And twenty-years ago when you talk to the people that come to Cooper’s and they brought their grandfather brought them, they’re bringing their son, they’re bringing their grandchildren, you’ll have four generations sitting at a table, it’s really cool. And that what it’s about. And before you know it, I thought my husband would really be the money guy because he was in it for the money. He knew it back whenever I ran it and he knew what I felt about it. But he also knew it was a lot of hard work. The cool thing is that now he’s swayed over and he’s onboard with me without even a fight because I figured it was going to have to be a fight to save this place. But he sat there more than I have and he hears what people say. And so now he’s got it. And I didn’t even have to fight for him to get it. He got what it means to preserve this place. So if it all works out then I hope we buy this building, we own this; if they want to do anything over us, go around us, I made that proposal to the developer and I told him, “I’m not being ugly. I’m telling you like it is; I want this building. I want it to stay. And if it doesn’t you can come out one of two ways. You can look like the biggest heel or you can look like a hero.” And that’s pretty much what I told the owner of this building. I said he knows me and I’m going to do whatever I can to do the right thing, which is save it. It ain’t all about the money no more. It’s about saving it for people and generations to come.
And you’ve used the word preserve and yesterday you used the word preservation and that was really powerful. Can you talk about that?
Well you got to preserve this building. You got to think about it. All that glitters is not gold; all that’s new is not great. Old is history. What else you got to look forward to? I mean you know anybody can eat at a franchise. This is an old privately owned business that needs to stay in its location in its entirety until somebody of a greater power like God takes it away from us. That’s it; I don’t want these bricks to fall down off these walls until a storm comes and it makes them fall down. Other than that I don’t want nobody else to touch it.
What has the reception been since this made the news recently?
A lot of people come in and they’re concerned. And I told them, I said, “Now I have somebody working with me on Facebook” and a lot of people follow us from Facebook, like a lot of people from out of state. I said, “So, if I post and I send it to you I’m going to need your help because if it goes that way I will have to do it. I’ll do whatever I can. I’ll raise as much hell and Cain as I can.” But like I said, in the worst-case scenario if I’m forced and I don’t have a choice then we’ll relocate and we’ll try to do as much as old as we can, take whatever is old. We’re not about the new; it’s not about that. You got to preserve this place. And if it takes taking the tables, the booths and everything else in doing it, trying to duplicate it we’re going to do it. The kitchen, a nice new kitchen would be nice but [Laughs] you know other than that that’s it. [Laughs]
And so tell me, I mean barbecue is obviously important to this community and to this State; why do you think barbecue in North Carolina or this part of North Carolina are so intertwined?
I don’t know. We have a lot of people that come from Lexington and they like the red sauce and they use our rib sauce on the barbecue. But they love our barbecue; they love our texture of barbecue. And everywhere I’ve ever eaten, gosh twenty years ago in owning and running this business everywhere you went you had to eat barbecue. I mean you’d be off the beaten path going to find a barbecue place to compare their barbecue to your barbecue or just tasting it or finding out about the kitchen. That’s how I found out about eating whole hog. I will not go to a restaurant and eat whole hog—ever, ever, ever. I have been to too many kitchens and saw that whole hog chopped up and it almost looks as pretty as much chopped barbecue, but I ain’t eating that mess. I’ll eat whole hog if I can pull it off of a grill but I’m not going to eat it if you chop it up. There’s just no way. But ours is just true clean barbecue. The cool thing about it is I had a chef in here about a month ago and he told me, he said, “Do you know why we like your barbecue so much in South Carolina?” He said, “Because we have the yellow sauce.” And I said, “Yellow?” He said, “Yeah, it’s like a honey mustard sauce.” And he said, “But I buy so much and take it back because this is awesome barbecue.” He said, “Can’t you tell me the recipe?” I’m like, “No, I can’t.” But we have people from the Four Seasons at Washington, DC, the chefs that come down there get a day off. They’ll come down here and buy a bunch of barbecue and take it back there and serve it. I’m serious. And they’ll eat and they’ll take a pile of it back to serve. So I mean it’s interesting but it’s just like Clyde, it always goes back. People do too much to their food. It’s so simple you’d be blown away. But it’s good.
What do you think Clyde Cooper would say with the business reaching almost a seventy-fifth anniversary, with y’all in charge, and with this looming kind of battle with a changing downtown Raleigh landscape?
I think he would get tears in his eyes if he thought that something was going to happen to it. You know, it’s funny; when my grandmother died, I asked the preacher one day, you know, “I know I hear about heaven but nobody ever comes back and says, ‘Oh yeah. I went up here to the gates of heaven. It was beautiful and everything was pearly white and all this stuff.’” I said, “So you know you got to believe.” So I’ve got to believe that he would be up there happy and proud of us and ecstatic that his name is living on and his name is as popular and as famous as it is but I think he would have tears in his eyes the day that something happens and I think he knows me well enough that not to underestimate me because I’m going to do everything I can legally to hold onto this business, this building, and this business in this building and just hope and pray that that’s in the plan. So I think he would be hoping with me.
And so January 1st of next year, 2012 you’ll be seventy-four years, the business. So January 1, 2013, 75 years what—
We’re going to raise hell.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Q: What makes Cooper’s BBQ & Catering different?
A: Cooper’s has been in business for over 70 years now, which has given us a lot of time to perfect our craft. Our barbecue is some of the best in the area! We pride ourselves in the quality of our food and service alike — a trip to Cooper’s will see you served with non-greasy, delicious barbecue that you’ll be sure to remember.
Q: Do you cater?
A: Absolutely! Not only do we encourage our customers to host parties here at Cooper’s, but we can also cook up a feast for anything you may need. Party or corporate event, we’ll be there to make people happy! Our prices are reasonable, our food delicious, and we use cholesterol-free oil.