Bruce Brown has been feeding amazing morsels to folks in Marion for nearly 10 years, and the exuberant chef can’t imagine enjoying it more anywhere else.
It’s noon, so the rush is on at Bruce’s Fabulous Foods in downtown Marion.
Owner Bruce Brown glides from back to front and around again in an expert arc. He checks in at the grill, where line cooks are whipping up house favorites, such as the Brucester Burger slathered in caramelized onions and the famous house pimento cheese, along with creative takes on the classics, such as the egg-salad melt on garlic rye.
Brown steps up to the grill when he needs to, but then he’s back out front, saying hello to most folks by name, taking orders, and giving out hugs.
“Everybody gets hugs at Bruce’s,” Brown says. “We’ve become known for it.” As if on cue, a young woman on her way back to college stops and embraces Brown, thanking him for a care package of homemade pimento cheese. (Every fall, he makes up dozens of the packages.)
Then it’s back to checking on the kitchen, or answering a phone, or stopping by the hostess stand to check in with his wife, Barbara Jean.
Running a restaurant is relentless work, even at a diner that’s only open for lunch — especially when you throw in a catering business, a new online venture, and two local cooking shows. But the pace is perfect for someone with Brown’s energy, and his drive to be in the middle of it all.
“If you ask him, ‘How are you, Bruce?’ he will always say: ‘Having fun,’” says Nancy Corpening, a Marion native and longtime customer. “I know he had surgery recently, and we thought that would slow him down. But it didn’t. He was just as happy as ever.”
Star of the diner
When Brown is making the rounds at the diner, he’s on. Part of it is that he’s happy in this place, where he gets to be creative, inventing dishes that he sometimes has to convince customers to try. And part of it is that Brown loves an audience.
His original plan was to become a sportscaster. But as the youngest of six children growing up in Elyria, Ohio, Brown says his older siblings got the cool jobs while he was relegated to the kitchen. He followed this path into a culinary career, which, as it turns out, puts him in front of a camera on a regular basis. As the host of “Carolina Kitchen,” airing on Asheville’s WLOS and WMYA three times a week, Brown shares recipes and tips and generally hams it up.
“I have too much fun,” says Brown, western North Carolina’s answer to Emeril Lagasse. Cajun food is one of his specialties; Marion residents know to watch for surprise Cajun Nights — among the few times a year that Bruce’s Fabulous Foods is open for dinner.
After moving from Ohio to Marion in 1993 — his wife’s family ties in Avery County pulled them home — Brown worked at a local, upscale eatery for nearly five years. In 2001, he started his own catering business, the original Bruce’s Fabulous Foods, and eight months later, he added a tiny 10-seat diner; today, the luncheonette on South Main Street fills up with 80 patrons.
Here for the food
Bruce’s is not a fashionable place. There’s no glitzy decor or artisan tableware on the walls or tables. In classic diner mode, the restaurant is laid out like a railroad car, shuttling backward from the hostess stand through the main dining room to the final stops — party room, office, and restrooms. Swivel stools line the counter, giving patrons a front-row view of the grill. Carpet softens everything, and yards of white paint compensate for a shortage of sunlight. The ceiling is low. The plants hanging from it are not real. And you might be asked to save your plastic fork for dessert.
But patrons don’t come here for ambience. They come for food that’s fresh and a little out of the ordinary. The sweet-and-sour cucumber salad, for example, is lacy and unexpected. And the spinach-feta salad isn’t confined to a bowl — some order it sunk into a pita and grilled.
“I get bored easily,” Brown says. So he experiments. And his experiments typically end up as additions to the menu. If he encounters a skeptic, he’s ready with a sample spoon.
“It’s all about getting people to broaden their horizons and try something different,” he says. “If someone gets to taste something homemade and fresh, it’s very rare that they will turn up their noses. Get them to try the pimento cheese, and they’ll come back for the roasted-beet hummus.”
No offense, but the item folks are coming back for probably isn’t the hummus — it’s cheesecake. All 135-plus varieties of it. Company T-shirts read, “Home of the 101 Cheesecakes,” but only because that number sounds catchier.
In the past few years, Bruce’s has become known for cheesecakes, velvety creations that tempt with an ever-expanding list of flavors. The Chocolate Overload — chocolate chips, chocolate brownie bites, and white- and dark-chocolate ganache — is an undisputed favorite. Pink Bubble Gum is fun, sugary madness. Lighter appetites appreciate the Pink Lemonade and Watermelon. Then there’s Sweet Potato Walnut and Sweet Tea & Lemon, Mexican Coffee and Dulce de Leche.
Of course, Brown has to slip in a few surprises as well — such as Flapjack, a country-breakfast tapestry of maple and butter, topped with bacon. “Everything tastes better with bacon,” Barbara Jean says.
On any given day, customers have their pick from a dozen to two dozen flavors, typically a mix of favorite standards and new, inventive concoctions. The cheesecakes are so popular, Brown recently launched Cheesecake Bliss, an online cheesecake factory that ships the creamy delights all over the country.
One day, Brown was shopping at Sam’s Club, when his wife noticed two women who seemed to be keeping their eye on them.
“These two ladies were creeping up behind him, staying about 30 yards away,” Barbara Jean says. “They whispered, ‘Is that him?’”
They apparently recognized him from the TV show.
“I said, ‘It sure is! Go give him a hug!’” Barbara Jean says.
Brown could do what he does anywhere — Asheville, or even Los Angeles or New York. “I’ve had offers,” he says. But the connection to community keeps Brown firmly planted in this small mountain town.
“Marion is a little bit warmer than most places,” he says.
Besides, if he moved operations, there’d be no one to supply the folks at the local EMS with their Brownie Bottom cheesecake. The combination of chocolate pan scrapings and general decadence is a favorite at the ambulance station; the techs asked Brown to let them know when the flavor’s available.
“We call their landline, not 911,” he says, smiling.
That kind of intimate hospitality is Brown’s thing. It allows him to make folks happy, one slice and one hug at a time.
Bruce’s Fabulous Foods
63 South Main Street
Marion, N.C. 28752
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
To order Bruce’s cheesecake online, go to cheesecakebliss.com.
Melanie McGee Bianchi lives in Asheville and is a contributing editor at Carolina Home & Garden. Her articles appear in Mountain Xpress, Verve, WNC magazine, and Appalachian Voices. She recently had work published in the Asheville Poetry Review.