CLAYTON — Curtis Jones will always be a celebrity at Jones’ Lunch, the Main Street diner where locals have gathered for food and conversation for more than 50 years.
But Jones is no longer flipping burgers and serving the diner’s signature red hot dogs, at least on a daily basis.
After 30 years as owner, Jones retired from his restaurant earlier this month.
“It feels strange,” Jones said. “I’ve been able to sleep later in the morning.”
On his first day in retirement, Jones, 68, awoke at 5:55 a.m. out of habit, thought briefly about going to the restaurant, which opens at 6:30 a.m., but turned over and went back to sleep.
Jones, who is also a minister, said he will now have more time for his church, Holly Springs Free Will Baptist, where he has been pastor for two decades. He also wants to go to the beach more with his wife.
A piece of history
Jones’ is more than a restaurant. It’s a meeting place and a part of the town’s rich history, and for three decades, Jones personified the restaurant.
“A lot of little towns have their own Jones’,” he said. “I’m certainly going to miss being there.”
In 1983, Jones took over the restaurant from his parents. Since then, he’s watched generations of patrons grow up at his diner.
As he gestured his hand to a height about three feet above the floor, he said, “I’ve watched children grow from about this high to now being in their 30s and bringing their children in here now.”
Jones has also witnessed history, and his restaurant reflects this county’s ups and downs.
Five years ago, when the Great Recession hit, Jones took money out of his personal bank account to keep the restaurant open.
“It was that or close the doors,” he said, explaining that business fell off as people stopped eating out as much.
Though known for his diner, Jones is as much a pastor as restaurant owner. He has paid light bills for customers, loaned them money and given them free meals.
He’s served everyone from farmer to politician. Pointing to Table 14, a long table in the middle of the restaurant, Jones said, “That’s where Elizabeth Dole sat.”
When the former U.S. senator came to the restaurant, Jones personally delivered lunch to her table.
Gov. Pat McCrory paid a visit earlier this year and had two of the red hot dogs. Former Congressman Bob Etheridge and former N.C. Sen. David Rouzer have also stopped by.
To Clayton residents, Jones’ is their “third place,” the place they go when they’re not at work or at home.
Johnny Jones, a loyal customer and close friend of Jones, said he has been eating there since he was 7 or 8 years old. When asked if he thought Jones’ retirement would change the restaurant, he said, “No, because he won’t let it.”
Johnny Jones and a group of friends who grew up with Curtis Jones arrive for breakfast at 6:30 every morning. Though he’ll miss seeing him every day, Johnny Jones said he’s happy his friend will get some much-deserved rest.
“He works really hard and a lot of hours,” Johnny Jones said.
A new phase
Jones was at the restaurant recently, wearing plain clothes and sitting in a booth. Regular customers had to do a double-take to recognize him.
“It’s me; I’m just not wearing my baseball hat,” Jones said, laughing. “I’m incognito.”
Jones’ son, Burr, also a familiar face at the restaurant is now the co-owner with his wife, Crystal. Starting in August, they plan to open the restaurant for dinner on Thursday and Friday nights.