Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2020. There’s something about that smell: hickory wood, sweet, with a hint of something that you just can’t put your finger on. Smoke
Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2020.
There’s something about that smell: hickory wood, sweet, with a hint of something that you just can’t put your finger on. Smoke billows from beneath a black metal hood as Jimmy Anderson lifts the handle to check the meat inside. The scent is a welcoming invitation to Lefler’s Place, a white frame café on NC Highway 73, three miles outside of Mount Gilead in the hamlet of Pee Dee.
“That’s the best thing I ever did,” Jimmy says, gesturing toward the smoker. “It’s like a billboard. People see it and have to stop.
Jimmy and his wife, Laura, know that the smoker is exactly what new customers come for. Drawn by the scent, they often order smoked chicken, baby back ribs, or steak, all seasoned with the rub that Jimmy has perfected. The Andersons also know what their regulars want — almost every one of them. “They get out of the car, and we’ve already fixed their food,” Jimmy says. He keeps the grill full of hamburgers and hot dogs while waitresses whiz by parading platters of café favorites: slaw, potato salad, banana pudding, and Lefler’s signature chopped barbecue.
Not much has changed since 1922, when Walker Lefler began selling hot dogs out of his country store and gas station. Vintage signs advertise Coca-Cola and Merita bread. The original barbecue pit, used to hickory-smoke pork shoulders on-site for decades, has been refurbished. Customers perch on old-fashioned barstools or meander around the candy counter on the store side, where black-and-white pictures of former owners line the walls. “I always thought it would be neat to have a place like Mayberry, where people come and gather, eat a meal, fellowship, and talk,” Jimmy says.
“If it can be this warm, this comfortable, then it’s got to be a good thing.”
To locals, Lefler’s is more than a restaurant; it’s like home. On one busy day in the café, Laura was stopped by a regular customer who wanted to tell her about the time her daddy hit a home run so far that it bounced at the caution light. By the time the story was finished, nearly a dozen men had gathered to listen, each adding his own memories. “That was the moment I knew without a shadow of a doubt that we had made the right choice in buying Lefler’s,” Laura says. “If it can be this warm, this comfortable, then it’s got to be a good thing.”
Jimmy, a minister, and Laura, a Mount Gilead native and former history teacher, purchased the café in 2013 after moving back to Montgomery County from Florida. With no restaurant experience, the Andersons agreed to buy the place only if former owners Sam Thompson and Alice Richardson would help teach them the business. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” Laura says. “Lefler’s grease runs through their veins.”
Sam started at Lefler’s in 1959 at the age of 15, learning grilling techniques from Sandy and Kate Bogan, who created many of the recipes still used today: barbecue sauce, chili, slaw, and even the technique for measuring hamburger patties. In fact, many locals still call the café Sandy Bogan’s, even though the name has always been Lefler’s.
Sam passed on his grilling secrets to the Andersons while Alice shared the original recipes that she had memorized during her time at Lefler’s. The next thing they knew, “the one who can’t boil water is running a restaurant,” Laura jokes about herself. Jimmy added his own barbecue rub for the ribs, plus salad dressings and candies made by baker Linda Cathcart, and a banana pudding recipe from the Andersons’ daughter, Rexanne.
Still, the additions are just delicious sidenotes to the café’s nearly century-long story. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and barbecue are still the most popular choices for regulars. “A person in their 70s or 80s can walk in and get a hot dog or hamburger, and with their first bite, they go, ‘That’s the same burger I had when I was a kid,’” Jimmy says. “Nothing’s changed, and that’s why they keep coming back.”