photograph by Chris Hannant

The sun has not yet risen over the fields in Camden, but Jess Matthews has already donned her apron and is busily cutting butter into flour. Soon, she’ll pull pans of perfectly golden sweet potato biscuits out of the oven and brush the tops with butter — just in time for Belcross Bake Shoppe’s first customers to arrive at 6 a.m.

Those sweet potato biscuits, a fixture on the menu since original owner Gail Umphlett opened the restaurant in 1984, have become famous in this corner of northeastern North Carolina. To make them, Jess adds a dash of Umphlett’s method to her own great-grandmother’s recipe for buttermilk biscuits. (She uses the same recipe for her sweet potato pecan cinnamon buns, plus a drizzle of glaze.)

That spirit of family is evident in every item on the menu. With their mother, Michele Adlon, Jess and her sisters, Taylor Bray and Randi Harrell, work together to create a welcoming place for customers to start their day. “Our motto is, ‘Come in as guests; leave as family,’” Michele says.

For a little slice of the day, customers feel like part of the family.

Jess has gotten to know many of Belcross’s customers by name, and she knows which ones will ask for their biscuits to be prepared in a certain way. Her own favorite combination — egg, cheese, sausage, grape jelly, and mustard on a sweet potato biscuit — has found its way onto the menu as “The Jess,” an invention she started tinkering with before her family bought Belcross from Umphlett, back when Jess was a customer herself.

“Many of our customers eat their breakfast and lunch here every day,” Michele says. “I’ve always dreamed of something like this.”

Tuesday through Saturday, Taylor Bray, Michele Adlon, Randi Harrell, and Jess Matthews bake cinnamon buns, cakes, and more. photograph by Chris Hannant

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Michele and her family first moved to northeastern North Carolina when her daughters were young and her husband, Scott, was a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer at the base in Elizabeth City. After Scott retired, the couple decided to remain in the area where their children grew up and are now starting their own families.

When she heard that Umphlett planned to sell Belcross Bake Shoppe, Michele was thrilled by the idea of working with her daughters and continuing the tradition of providing breakfast, lunch, and baked goods to the community. So a little more than four years ago, the Adlons and their daughter Taylor, along with her husband, Douglas, bought the restaurant together. “I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else,” Taylor says.

It was important to them to maintain some of the recipes that had been popular with customers for decades, Taylor explains, while adding their own family recipes to the menu. “We had to figure out what worked for us,” she says.

The family makes the most of nearby farm markets with dishes that let local ingredients shine: Parfaits with fresh blueberries. BLTs with perfect summer tomatoes. Sausage from Layden’s, a country store in Belvidere.

A selection of Belcross Bake Shoppe’s cinnamon buns are well-worth the trip. photograph by Chris Hannant

To create a warm, inviting atmosphere, they opened a storage room to expand the seating area and chose decor that reflected their family and community. They brought in a hutch made by Michele’s grandfather and worked with a historian to find black-and-white photos of area landmarks and local people. Even the old pew where customers wait for to-go orders came from a church that Michele’s father attended in Dunn.

“People can walk in and feel like they’re at home,” Michele says. With the open kitchen in view, they can see Michele and her daughters cooking together — and, for a little slice of the day, feel like part of the family.

Belcross Bake Shoppe
269 U.S. Highway 158 East
Camden, NC 27921
(252) 338-1286

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Anna Goodwin McCarthy is a writer based in Elizabeth City.