This is where I’d normally set the table for my visit to Cafe 71 Smokehouse, which opened up last fall in the space formerly occupied by Rick’s Smokehouse in the small town of Welcome, NC just north of Lexington. But the course of this post changed when Cafe 71 abruptly closed a few weeks ago just shy of 4 months open.
I recently visited Cafe 71 much the same way I did Rick’s three years ago, leaving Charlotte on a banker’s holiday to make the 1.5 hour drive up to Lexington for lunch. I had planned to hit two Lexington joints that day but with the Monkettes in tow, I decided not to push it.
And what I found in my tray at the time was delicious, smoky pork that filled the void of traditional wood smoking left when Rick’s Smokehouse closed last April. The slaw had a nice balance of tangy with just a hint of sweet, and the hush puppies were fresh. All in all, a good meal. It was certainly in the conversation for a 4.5 hog rating which would have matched that of Rick’s when I originally visited.
I apparently should be glad I was able to get a meal at all, because it has since come to light that Cafe 71 did not keep regular hours and would oftentimes close for the day because there was no more food available. Weird. Normally, this is what a barbecue restaurant craves: smoking tons of meat and serving the freshest, best version of of it until it runs out for the day. Then doing it all over again for the next day. For Cafe 71, it was a matter of restaurant mismanagement. Owner Newlan Spears falsely blamed it on a lack of regular kitchen staff in a recent Lexington Dispatch article but comments on the Dispatch Facebook page paint a story that goes beyond simple mismanagement: apparently no employees or vendors were getting paid. In that article, Spears complained about having 25-30 kitchen staff during his 4 months open but turns out that there is high kitchen turnover when paychecks are bouncing. Waitresses only stayed because they were getting (deservedly) tipped for their great service. Spears also had outstanding debts at Shuler Meats and Orrell’s Food Service. Here’s what was posted in the Facebook comments from a former waitress:
While the situation does not appear to be good for anyone, it does explain an odd confrontation I had as I left the restaurant. After eating (and enjoying) my meal and paying, I let the girls go to my car (parked right out front) while I did my usual routine of snapping photos – sign, smoker, woodpile, wide shot of building, etc – when Spears approached me asking why I was taking photos. I explained that it was for my barbecue blog and while he was mostly appeased in the moment, he did throw in a comment that I was making the waitresses uneasy. And I’m not going to lie, this comment bothered me a little. But now I understand that Spears probably thought I was snooping around on account of his shady business practices.
It’s a shame that Cafe 71 Smokehouse wasn’t able to give it a legit go but there’s still some good news in Lexington. Speedy’s owner Roy Dunn announced that it was relocating instead of closing, keeping the 60 year old restaurant open. Also, I was informed that a new joint called Southern Fire Pit has opened in the former Arcadia Q (which was formerly Speedy Lohr’s of Arcadia) and is smoking over wood. Both will be on my to-visit list next time I make it to Lexington.
And late breaking news that all is not lost for this location and its traditional pit. As I write this it appears based on a Facebook comment that the previous owner Rick Matthew of Rick’s Smokehouse is going to reopen a barbecue restaurant in the same space. The name? Well, apparently it will be called Jimmy’s. I can’t wait.