A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Collard Man pipes right up. “Look here,” he says, leaning over a country diner table, fixing me with a serious gaze. “We talk about important stuff every day. Big stuff,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Collard Man pipes right up. “Look here,” he says, leaning over a country diner table, fixing me with a serious gaze. “We talk about important stuff every day. Big stuff,

The Pig Crew

Regulars enjoy breakfast at the Piggly Wiggly in Richlands.

Collard Man pipes right up. “Look here,” he says, leaning over a country diner table, fixing me with a serious gaze. “We talk about important stuff every day. Big stuff, like: How do they get the different-colored stripes of toothpaste inside the toothpaste tube? Do you know? Have you ever asked yourself that question?”

Appreciative murmurs rumble around a pair of red-and-white tables jumbled with coffee cups, plates of eggs, munched-on biscuits, and crunched-on bacon. Seven or eight men crowd around, like an eastern North Carolina version of The Last Supper. There’s a lot of head-nodding. A fair number of sheepish grins.

The Piggly Wiggly in downtown Richlands

The Piggly Wiggly in downtown Richlands has been a gathering place since it opened in 1959. photograph by Charles Harris

“We talked about that for three or four days,” Collard Man says, “until we finally looked it up on the computer.”

“Mysteries of the world,” intones another gray-bearded fellow whom, for the moment, I only know as Sunday School Teacher. “That’s what we struggle with here.”

These fellows do their best to stifle grins, but the laughter comes quickly, hoots and hollers that jostle coffee and turn over at least one packet of strawberry jelly.

Collard Man’s real name is Wayne Barbee, I learn. He’s a contractor who now works in water systems and is, indeed, known for growing nearabout the best greens in Onslow County. He’s also known for his status as a longtime member of one of the most prestigious, sought-after — heck, even elite — social and cultural clubs in the region: The early morning, two-table gathering of regulars at the Piggly Wiggly diner in downtown Richlands.

• • •

This is the scene, right much exactly, seven days a week at the diner inside the grocery store. “The Pig,” it’s called, and every day but Sunday, breakfast starts promptly at 5:30 a.m. — it opens at 6 on Sundays — despite the fact that regulars might be pecking on the front plate glass 15 minutes earlier. The lunch counter at The Pig is no slouch. It’s a cornucopia of chicken pastry and beef tips and pork chops and barbecue. Plus, barbecued chicken most Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and fried chicken every day. But it’s the country breakfast that defines the place, and not only because of the food.

This group gathers every morning in two shifts — early and late. They are retired farmers and bankers, road pavers and schoolteachers. The men talk fishing and hunting and sports and politics. They check on each other’s families. They remember the old times, when most of them were growing up around Richlands, cruising the loop around the old Toot-n-Tell It drive-in diner. They remember hanging out of the car windows, hollering at girls, then drifting back to the parking lot at The Pig to lean on warm car hoods and talk about fishing and hunting and sports and politics.

The breakfast club holds court at the Piggly Wiggly in Richlands.

The diner inside the store is like a second home for breakfast club members (from left) Carl Brown, Tony Padgett, and Johnny Thomas. photograph by Charles Harris

Well, maybe not politics. Not quite yet. And even today, not everywhere.

“Down there is the politics table,” Barbee explains, nodding toward the far end of the gathering, not six feet away. “On this end, we talk deer hunting and farming. And toothpaste.”

And they lay it on thick, like old friends do.

“A couple weeks ago in Sunday school,” Carl Brown tells me, leaning close like he’s sharing a secret, “we started lessons in the Old Testament, and Jim here asked me to be a reference.” That would be Jim Reifinger, aka Sunday School Teacher. “He said he needed someone with firsthand knowledge of the times,” Brown continues. “So you can see the kind of people you hang out with here. I don’t know where I went wrong.”

• • •

Let me tell you what’s on the breakfast menu at The Pig. There’s country ham, bacon piled up like timber on a logging deck, two kinds of link sausage (smoked and fresh), scrambled eggs with cheese, scrambled eggs without cheese, plain grits, cheese grits, potato wedges, biscuits and gravy, and cooked apples. There’s more, but I’m too hungry to pay closer attention. I’ve been advised to forgo the plate breakfast and put in an order for a Murrill Bowl — a large cup of grits, cheese, and eggs, with a choice of bacon or fresh sausage. It’s named for one of the ancestors of Richlands’ Sylvester family, owners of the Piggly Wiggly and caretakers of its 65-year-old mystique. Who in their right mind would turn down a Murrill Bowl?

The Murrill Bowl — a pint container loaded with grits, cheese, scrambled egg, and your choice of sausage or bacon — with a biscuit is a staple breakfast at The Pig. photograph by Charles Harris

The food is very good, but there’s a different sort of sustenance being served up at The Pig, and it’s no less palpable than the scent of sausage on a hot flat-top. Every morning, there’s a sort of communion set on those red-topped tables. It feeds the soul as much as the body. I’ve wandered into who knows how many country diners, and what strikes me deeply is how much they have in common. And how wonderfully unique each one is, too, with its own vibe and cast of characters and vocabulary.

Murrill Bowl, indeed.

Curiously, while Piggly Wigglys are mostly known as hyperlocal, hometown grocery stores, the chain was originally lauded for its groundbreaking, highly modern approach that changed grocery shopping forever. Founded in Memphis in 1916, Piggly Wiggly was the first grocery store where customers moved through the aisles, pushing carts and choosing their own products. Up till then, shoppers typically handed over a list to an old-fashioned store clerk, who assembled and bagged the goods.

It’s an innovation that very well might rival the invention of striped toothpaste. The next time I’m in Richlands, I might ask these fellows what they think about that.

For the moment, though, I dip a big spoonful of my Murrill Bowl, sit back, and enjoy the show. I recall a conversation I had last night, chatting with John Hayden Sylvester, whose grandfather opened the Richlands Piggly Wiggly in 1959, and who now helps the family run Piggly Wigglys across a sizable chunk of eastern North Carolina.

“We can’t do what the mega-chains do,” Sylvester said thoughtfully. “They have resources we don’t have, so we have to offer something they can’t.”

At The Pig, a cross-section of eastern North Carolina shows up every day, in overalls and Sunday suits, work boots and fishing duds, to check on their neighbors and find out who’s getting what on soybeans and to ask about your mama’s cataract surgery. Looking around this morning, I don’t see a soul who would disagree with Sylvester. Mission accomplished.

Piggly Wiggly
8406 Richlands Highway
Richlands, NC 28574
(910) 324-3333

This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.