Pete Pully casts his memory back about 75 years — past his 25 years of retirement, past his four decades in pharmaceuticals marketing, and past his time as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — and remembers a man eating alone.
He was a well-to-do man. A wealthy bachelor who ate at least one meal a day at Pully’s Barbecue in Kinston, the small restaurant Pete’s family ran from 1922 until it closed in early 1962.
When the urge struck him, the man rose from his small, square table. He walked behind the counter where the cash register sat, helped himself to a pack of cigarettes, and returned to his seat.
He never bothered paying, at least not right away.
“When he did it, we didn’t say a word to him,” Pete says. “We just put it on his bill. Once a month, when he got his retirement, he’d come and pay the whole thing up.”
Pully’s was that kind of place — a simple establishment run by a hardworking, local family and buoyed by a thriving tobacco industry that declined decades ago.
For 40 years, Pully’s occupied a shotgun room divided by a long, front-to-back wall in a vast, brick building on Herritage Street, the hub of the tobacco market each fall. For 25 cents during the Great Depression, diners feasted on the contents of white, 4-by-6-inch trays filled with the family’s oak-wood-smoked barbecue, cornbread, and coleslaw — coffee or water included.
Many residents remember Pully’s as the first business where customers could order meal-size quantities of barbecue without putting in the man-hours to make it.
“It was very simple, very simple,” says Shade Aldridge, 83, who owned an auto-parts business down Herritage Street from Pully’s. “Of course, about everything back then in Kinston was simple. They weren’t different. But they had some good barbecue. I remember that.”
The tobacco market in downtown Kinston was the place to be in early autumn in the 1940s and ’50s. Weathered men in overalls and straw hats dodged mule-powered flatbed trucks loaded with carefully looped yellow-leaf tobacco.
The men came from all over the eastern part of the state to sell their crops in two giant warehouses that sat across Herritage Street from Pully’s. Many of the men rode behind their mules on daylong trips and couldn’t return home before nightfall, so the warehouses contained bunks where they slept.
Pete’s father, Fred Pully, was a charismatic, young entrepreneur. He kept his restaurant open all night and offered delivery service during market season. He moved his wife and six children from nearby La Grange to help with the business. When he died in 1929, his widow and family took over.
Pete, now 90 years old, started working on Saturdays as soon as he was able, delivering food to homes and collecting unpaid bills. He made 10 cents an hour and used the money to keep up with his cinematic heroes at the Carolina Theater around the block on Queen Street.
Pully’s had a high ceiling and white walls decorated with colorful signs and calendars from beer companies, whose products were sold from behind the counter once they became legal again.
The wall running from the front entrance to the fire pit in the back separated the restaurant into a white section on the left and a “colored” section on the right. The only available bathroom was on the white side.
That wall, along with the tile floor that covered an original concrete slab softened by sawdust in the restaurant’s early years, is still an identifiable remainder of the dining rooms. It now divides two rooms that serve as storage space for Mother Earth Brewing, a microbrewery that opened in 2008.
People in Kinston remember Pully’s — along with Lovick’s Cafe and King’s Barbecue, which still operate today — as part of a trio of legendary, local restaurants.
“Pully’s was renowned back in those days,” says Jim Rouse, a 66-year-old Wheat Swamp native who enjoyed Pully’s fish stew when he was younger.
“It wouldn’t be a place where you would want to carry your date if you were going out eating in a fancy restaurant because there was nothing fancy about it whatsoever,” Rouse says. “It was basically a hole in the wall.”
When Fred Jr. died, no one in the family was in line to take over, so Pully’s closed in 1962. Pete Pully left the restaurant business when he was 17 to study chemistry at UNC. But today, almost 50 years after Pully’s served its last plate, people still come up to him with stories about eating barbecue at his family’s restaurant.