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Remembering Mr. Ribs Restaurant

Just down Hillsboro Street from the former N.C. Equipment Co. and its famous bulldozer sign is a nondescript little concrete block building where a succession of dive bars have occupied the space for decades. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was home to Mr. Ribs restaurant. They served ribs and steaks, baked potatoes and lettuce salads, and that was about it. In those days if you wanted a meat and potato meal you went to Mr. Ribs. At least that’s where my dad always took our family.

Back then several gas stations, garages, automotive supply stores, barbershops, laundries and like businesses occupied those two or three blocks of Hillsboro St. between the N.C. Equipment Co. and Fergussen’s Hardware.

Mr. Ribs was an unassuming place and was decked out in typical 1960s steakhouse décor: open kitchen with a blazing grill in the front window, red checkered vinyl table cloths and those ubiquitous netted red candle lamps. There was even a large fake stone gas log fireplace along one wall. As such, Mr. Ribs was an unpretentious, homey joint.

I guess my familiarity with the place was probably why I took a job in the kitchen there the last semester of my sophomore year at N.C. State. I was the dishwasher, and although that is a thankless job if there ever was one, for the most part I enjoyed my stint there. Most of the employees were fellow State students.

At that time I was a vegetarian, and the irony of working around all that meat was not lost on me. We employees were allowed one meal during our shift so I ended up eating a lot of baked potatoes, which I slathered with butter and sour cream. I even took home the unserved baked potatoes and made potato salad.

Every few weeks or so, a local state politico made an appearance with his entourage in tow. The only reason I remember this is because upon his departure he would always tip the kitchen staff. The tip was only a few bucks, but I did think that was a pretty classy gesture.

Besides me, the other employees on my shift included the night manager, the head cook, the assistant cook and maybe four waitresses. The manager pretty much hid out in the office doing the books and whatever else he did back there. It was the head cook who really ran the show at Mr Ribs. I remember one in particular who was a real tyrant—think soup nazi on Seinfeld and you get the picture.

This head cook was a graduate student at N.C. State and he made it very clear he hated working at Mr Ribs—and I don’t think he cared for his co-workers very much, either. He was always shouting and barking orders at the waitresses and he seemed to delight in making things as miserable for them as possible.

As anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant biz can tell you, things can get pretty hectic during peak hours. One night—and as it happened, it was my last night at mr. Ribs—the mean head cook was particularly rough on one of the more recent hires—Becky. Although she had worked there for only a couple weeks, we had become quite friendly.

I really don’t remember what started all the ruckus, but late in the evening he became enraged—and Becky was the target of his tirade. She was practically in tears when he shouted: “You’re fired!” The other waitress still on duty retorted: “You can’t fire her!” to which he shot back: “Well you are fired too!” I don’t know what got into me that night, but suddenly I found my mettle and told him: “If you fire them, then I quit!” The three of us threw down our aprons and headed for the door.

In the meantime the manager had heard all the commotion and came to the kitchen. He pleaded with us to stay, but by then we were at the point of no return. As I headed out the door I glanced back and saw the assistant cook looking on in disbelief. He was an inmate from the state pen on work release. He looked at me and said: “Hey man, I’m with ya. I’d leave too, but, you know…” I’ll never forget that.

Afterwards Becky and I walked up Hillsboro Street and stopped in at Red’s for a couple beers. As we sat there and cooled down some, we both realized how stupid walking out like that was. But by then there was no point in discussing it any more. And later, as it turned out, it ended up a pretty good night after all.


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