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Blair L. Pollock: Breadmen’s: 40 years of feeding people

July 1, 2014 

This memory snippet dated late 1970s from an old friend may say it all:

“My memory of Breadmen’s is those very late nights where you went in and could see EVERYONE in the place – cooks, waits and all clients – in that surround as I remember the old location (a failed former Burger Chef) and that everyone seemed to be as stoned (and hungry) as I was. It’s a pretty foggy memory, but I loved going there.”

I believe that if pressed, but not too hard, the almost ever-present owners Roy and Bill Piscitello would concur. As they alluded there are way more stories than they’ll ever tell about goings on especially in the good ole days of 24 hours when people would stumble in after the show at Cat’s Cradle, then just a half block down the street. Gradually, the boys, cut back, first to 3 a.m., then, 2 a.m. and 1 a.m.; now maintaining only the genteel hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Breakfast is still served any time.

Another friend recalls, “Breadmen’s was the center of love and romance. It was where you went on Sunday morning to see who had been with whom the night before.’ Or as Bill put it, grinning, “Who came in with wet hair.’

This isn’t a restaurant review because it’s not primarily about the food, it’s about the place and sense of place that can only be created by being there 40 years and not skimping on portions or trying to take advantage. It’s home-style cooking, not fancy or pretentious, a delightful mash up of northeastern diner, southern and their own unique hand with dishes like “Lazy Bill’s Meatloaf’ or on the menu just this week “Vacation Grilled Cheese’ or their unique unbeatable blueberry crumb cake. The first time I, as transplanted New Yorker tasted it, circa 1976, I wondered if they imported it from some New York bakery – no, I was told, only the recipe.

If you look online at sites like Urban Spoon or Yelp and you’re looking for a place to eat, you might not pick Breadmen’s because reviews of the food are so mixed. But those reviewers miss the point. The restaurant is of this place and you feel it the minute you walk in. Years of Tar Heel sports posters and long strings of Carolina blue Christmas lights are highlights of the decor. My wife and I hosted our post-wedding breakfast there. It was just the right choice, walking distance from the hotel, big enough for all our friends and family and affordable to the hosts . My sister-in-law still talks with amazement of her skinny nephew putting away the whole Big Breadmen breakfast without sharing a bite. You’ll have to look it up, but for $8 you can’t possibly have a more substantial meal.

After 40 years, Breadmen’s is a multi-generational institution. Over a beer at their modest bar last week, I asked the waitress how long she’d been working there and she told me ‘Since January, but I knew about the place because my dad told me he came here when he was in college.” Roy says one of his favorite things is when people who frequented it as students return with kids in tow for the summer camps at UNC. Like any good host, he remembers all the regulars; often taking his turn as the server and chatting with everyone as he works the room, keeping a careful owner’s eye out for whatever needs done. If you don’t find him there, you might, as I did wave him down in their catering van driving I-95 in Florida.

You don’t survive in any business especially one as tough as restaurants without being smart about your money and the Piscitellos take advantage of any waste reduction opportunities they can to save on garbage costs. Years ago they were one of the first to switch to table side caddies to hold the ubiquitous breakfast jelly servings because tubs of jellies served on each breakfast plate were not always used, but then had to be wasted. Massive spiral magnets perched over each food waste container in the kitchen keep silverware out of the compostable plate scrapings they separate for Orange County’s food collection program, saving them at least one dump a week of their trash dumpster. They even recovered and reinstalled the old ceiling insulation when remodeling at their “new” location in 1992.

The one thing they don’t do is cut back on portion size or quality even if they have to raise prices to maintain profitability. And, although Roy won’t claim this, they were locavores before locavorism was cool. And not because it’s cool but it works for them. The Latta family delivers quality fresh eggs from their “egg ranch” north of Hillsborough at a good price. The Bread Shop bakery that used to be right across Frankin Street where 411 West lives now, had the best sunflower and other sandwich breads. So good and reliable in fact, that 40 years on, Breadmen’s still sources bread from them though the Bread Shop moved to Pittsboro sometime last century.

It’s hard to imagine Breadmen’s without the Breadman – that’s Roy (don’t ask why) – and brother “Lazy” Bill who reminds me, “It’s better he called me that than ‘Sweet William.’ Yet that day may be arriving very soon as the brothers said they are preparing to hand the reins to the Castro family, various members of whom have been working with them for 20 years. You are still likely to see their longest-serving employee, Dane Hupman, still at the cash register, because as Dane said after 28 years, “I make a good living and I’m happy here.’

You can reach Blair Pollock at blairlpollock@gmail.com

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