Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood doesn’t offer anything fancy. But its down-home ambience earns it five stars from the people of Four Oaks.
Sitting in the back of Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood, his arm casually flung over the chair next to him, Terry Barefoot doesn’t have any awe-inspiring words to explain why his place has been around for more than 30 years.
His recipe for success is simple.
“If you give them good service and a good meal and good portions where they don’t leave hungry, they’ll come back,” he says.
‘What they need’
The restaurant, with its green roof and stone columns, is located between the tiny town of Four Oaks; its namesake, Holt Lake; and Interstate 95.
Twice rebuilt after fires, the building is nearly new, and its large parking lot smells of down-home Southern cooking — a smell so strong that on a chilly day, the aroma alone can warm you.
Inside, the decor is as no-frills as Barefoot’s philosophy. Blueish-green tables and chairs fill the dining room, and two muted televisions hang on the burnt orange walls. Without music, the chatter of customers and waitstaff creates a mess-hall-like ambience.
Three pitchers sit on every table — a white one filled with water, a gray one with sweet tea, and a dark blue one with unsweet tea. Waitresses in jeans and white Holt Lake T-shirts bring out cups of ice and an extra bucket of the cubes, just in case.
“When I go to a restaurant, I drink a lot of tea, and if they don’t have tea, the waitress is steadily coming back, coming back,” Barefoot says. “We’ve always done it from Day 1, just let people have what they need.”
Just as you close the menu, the waitress plunks down your dessert — complimentary with lunch during the week. On Monday through Friday mornings, Barefoot’s 85-year-old mother, Helen, whips up 300 to 400 treats — banana pudding, red velvet cake, peach cobbler, strawberry shortcake.
“I really don’t know [what I’ll make] until the morning I get up there,” Helen says. “Because I’m 85 years old, so I’m lucky I can bake a layer of cake.”
The practice of serving dessert first became an unplanned part of Holt Lake’s reputation, kept alive by the convenience of reaching for dessert after handing in orders to the cook.
“Eat your dessert first to make sure you have room for it,” Barefoot says.
His statement makes sense when you see the main course.
Shrimp overflow the largest part of the divided plate, and a steaming-hot baked potato fills a smaller section. The green beans look like they’re trying to escape, teetering over the edges beside hushpuppies fresh from the oven.
Seafood is one of the restaurant’s most popular options, with families returning from the beach to get their seafood at Holt Lake. The restaurant’s homemade slaw is a big draw, as well; a few days ago, the fire department bought 300 pounds.
Those basics keep the restaurant hopping. The Four Oaks class of 1956 recently chose Holt Lake as the place to celebrate its 55th reunion. Meetings, parties, and wedding receptions fill the two banquet rooms nearly every day.
Weathering the changes
When Holt Lake opened its doors in 1979, Smithfield was a Mecca for eastern North Carolina’s tobacco industry. With five or six warehouses, the Johnston County seat beckoned farmers from across the coastal region. And all that work made them hungry.
“Back then, all of our business was rural,” Barefoot says. “Tobacco farmers would stay at the tobacco market all day, and they’d come in to eat lunch and go back to the tobacco market. But all that has gone away now.”
Smithfield’s north side has new shopping centers and franchises — now Holt Lake’s competition — while the west side of Johnston County boasts an expanding housing market.
But Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood remains a constant.
“Things have changed a lot over the years,” Barefoot says, “but I think we’ve been real fortunate to weather all the different changes and still be here.”
Before starting Holt Lake, Barefoot; his late father, James; his younger brother, Kevin; and Helen leased a small barbecue joint down the street for a couple of years.
Barefoot, fresh out of college at East Carolina University with a degree in law enforcement and correctional services, planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue police work.
“I had been talking to people, and I had a few connections, so I was really going after it the first couple of years,” he says.
When the lease was up, Barefoot’s father wanted the family to build a place of their own. It didn’t require much arm-twisting to persuade Barefoot.
“I just decided I liked staying close to home,” he says. His brother moved on to other interests, but Barefoot held on tight to the business that became his career.
The 57-year-old now lives in a house on Holt Lake, about five miles away from the family farm where he grows corn, soybeans, and wheat.
Located one left turn off Interstate 95 and almost halfway between New York and Florida, Holt Lake attracts its share of travelers. But it gets its regulars, too.
Most days, you see elderly couples leaving the building after filling up for lunch or dinner, husbands gingerly holding their wives’ hands and helping them into their cars.
“You see them grow as you grow,” Barefoot says. “I’ve got people that used to come in here with their parents when they were small, and now they’ve grown up, and they’re coming with their children and their grandchildren.”
It’s not just the customers who stick around. After the second fire, in April 2010, when the business’s insurance representative crunched the numbers, he found the average time of employment at Holt Lake was 17 years — no shock, considering that at least two of Barefoot’s current employees have been there for more than 25 years.
“People come here, and they see the same familiar faces,” Barefoot says. “The customers have got their waitresses, and they like to say, ‘Can I sit in her section?’ … We don’t have a big turnover. It’s like a big family.”
Although most people dine in at Holt Lake, others grab a bite through the take-out window on the north side of the restaurant. When they do, Diana Futch is there to help.
Futch is as enthusiastic as she was on her first day of work 30 years ago. She carefully explains menu options to diners, cheerfully answers the phone, and mans the take-out window — all with the concentration of a scientist and the sweetness of a Southern belle.
When asked what keeps her here, she tilts her head and smiles. Her answer is as simple as the restaurant itself.
“It’s home,” she says.
Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood
3506 U.S. Highway 301 South
Smithfield, N.C. 27577
Amanda Munger is the features editor at The Robesonian in Lumberton.