Five minutes after closing on a Saturday — and technically five minutes into his vacation — Ricky Bullins notices a regular customer heading toward the diner. The sign in the window says Bob’s Restaurant closed at 11 and won’t reopen for another week. The family who runs the place is headed on vacation.
But the grill is still hot, and Bullins hates to turn anyone away.
“If he just wants a ham-and-egg biscuit, I’ll fix it real quick,” Ricky says. He reaches for his spatula.
That’s just the way it is at Bob’s, the downtown Madison landmark that Ricky and Jane Bullins have owned for the past 10 years.
More than a full belly
Bob’s is every bit a typical diner. It’s a small space with picture windows and candy for sale around the cash register. Customers fill up booths with oilcloth-topped tables and swivel on stools at a counter that runs the length of the dining room. Breakfast is served all day, and for lunch and dinner, you can order up a meat-and-two, sandwich, salad, soup, fried fish, or something from the grill.
The food, homestyle and delicious, satisfies like a plate at a church potluck. But linger over your chicken pot pie, and you start to sense there’s more to Bob’s than a full belly.
There are the easy conversations that flow from table to table and from the dining room to the kitchen, and the silences that pass for communication among the people working in the kitchen. Before long, it dawns on you: Everybody here knows each other.
“It’s just like family. They treat you like family, and the customers are like family to each other,” says Glenda Griggs of Madison, a Bob’s regular.
Pretty much everybody at Bob’s is a regular.
Every morning, a group of retirees — including Griggs, June Anderson, Harvey Russ, and Nancy Atkins — has breakfast together. Sometimes spouses tag along, and sometimes it’s kids and grandkids. They come for the company, the food, the news, and the local gossip.
“If you miss a day, you might miss something,” Anderson says. “If you come in and your regular friends aren’t here, there’s always somebody to sit with.”
If you’re a regular and you miss the morning roll call at Bob’s, someone’s likely to check on you.
A kitchen of his own
Ricky Bullins was raised in Rockingham County in a working-class family. His parents worked hard and didn’t have a lot. Ricky grew up knowing that if he wanted something, he had to work for it. “I couldn’t ask my mama and daddy,” he says.
By the time he was 15, Bullins was in the kitchen of the Airport Drive-In Restaurant. A year later, he went to Fuzzy’s Bar-B-Q, where he stayed for 28 years, cooking. Morning, noon, night, and weekends, he stoked fires and tended shoulders. He chopped vegetables and seasoned stews. He made sandwiches and mixed the slaw.
“When everybody else was at the football game in high school, I was working,” he says. “I believe you can have anything you want. But you’ve got to work.”
What Bullins wanted was a kitchen of his own.
“For years, all I heard was he wanted his own restaurant,” says Jane Bullins, who met her husband while she worked as a waitress at Fuzzy’s.
His opportunity came in 2000, when Nancy Rogers decided to sell the namesake restaurant that her late husband opened three decades earlier. The Bullinses bought the restaurant and the building at 124 South Market Street and went to work. Ricky decorated the place with NASCAR and Harley-Davidson memorabilia; he took care not to disturb the diner’s down-home charm.
“I fixed it like somewhere I’d want to go,” Bullins says.
It’s a good thing. If Bob’s is open, there’s a Bullins behind the grill and probably at least one more in the kitchen. Jane’s father drops in two, three, or four times a day, just to keep busy. He buses tables, sweeps the floors, and does anything else that needs doing. Ricky’s sister works here, too.
Ricky and Jane get to work at 4 a.m. and handle the early breakfast crowd until 7 a.m., when the first waitress arrives. They’ve worked side by side so long that they know what needs to be done to get the food cooked, plated, and served with little need for words, just the shorthand of a passed plate.
The rhythm of Ricky’s stainless-steel spatula hitting the grill sets the restaurant’s cadence: “Hustle, hustle, hustle.”
A lot of times, Ricky cooks in the dark for the first hour, and the customers who stop in on their way to work before daybreak don’t seem to mind. Finally someone remembers — or finds the time — to flip on the lights.
Older sons Matt, 28, and Rich, 30, arrive a few hours later, working alongside their parents during the transition from breakfast to lunch. Matt, who has a flair for perfecting recipes and creating new ones, usually works the kitchen in the back while his older brother assumes grill duties from their dad. Thirteen-year-old Luke hasn’t joined their ranks quite yet.
Rich is as like his father as any son could be. They have a similar quiet demeanor and controlled way of speaking, and have almost identical mannerisms.
Rich is his father’s right-hand man, often standing to the right of his father at the grill. While Ricky is busy tending to other orders, Rich is flipping tenderloin patties, stacking clean plates on a shelf above, and replenishing the cook’s stock of eggs. They are like two halves of a whole, as perfect a pairing as biscuits and gravy.
‘We are family’
Ricky keeps one eye on the grill and another on the front door. When regulars walk in, he gets their orders cooking. Most times, Jane or one of the waitresses will have customers’ drinks poured and waiting for them on the table.
“The main thing that sets this place apart is that the owner cooks the food,” says Dan Moore, who eats at Bob’s at least once a day with his wife, Carol. “They take pride in everything they do. If Ricky went off and stayed at the beach all the time, I don’t know if it would be the same.”
Nearly everyone at Bob’s mentions the family’s work ethic, how well they work together and the gestures — big and small — that make customers feel like a part of things. A cup of coffee, fixed just the way you like it, waiting for you when you sit down; an extra ladle of gravy on your mashed potatoes; a breakfast platter arranged in a smiley face; or even a phone call to find out where you are if you don’t show up at your regular time.
Recently, a Bob’s regular fell ill, and the other customers immediately noticed his absence from the counter stool he holds down every morning. Everyone through the door wanted to know where Jackie Lawson was. Later, when folks learned he’d been hospitalized, they stopped in at Bob’s to ask how he was doing and when he was coming back. It seemed that no one could break through the hospital’s privacy barriers to get any details on their friend’s condition.
Jane finally called the hospital, pleading for information. “We’re not family. But we are family,” she told the nurse on duty.
That’s just the way it is at Bob’s.
Bob’s Restaurant and Catering
124 South Market Street
Madison, N.C. 27025
Amy Joyner, an award-winning writer and author of The eBay Billionaires’ Club, lives in Greensboro.