Wilber vows to reopen iconic spot
Sunday, March 24, 2019
With characteristic calmness, 88-year old owner Wilber Shirley is assuring customers of his renowned Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro that the recently-shuttered restaurant will be back in business before long.
His iconic, wood-burning eatery, known for its whole hog barbecue, closed for an indefinite period March 14 after the business was cited by the N.C. Department of Revenue as owing some $70,000 in unpaid 2018 sales and use taxes.
Wilber’s has been struggling to stay open for several years since the U.S. 70 bypass re-routed much of the traffic around the restaurant’s location on what is now U.S. 70 Business. Shirley plans to reorganize and reopen with reduced operating hours as soon as possible.
“By cutting costs of operation, our long tradition of serving great eastern North Carolina barbecue and good food will be resumed quickly,” he says, adding, “I hope all our loyal customers will return when our doors are open again.”
Shirley grew up on a Wayne county farm and recounts that he first experienced wood-smoked, vinegar-sauced eastern North Carolina barbecue as a young boy when he and his father took their flue-cured tobacco to market every fall. After he had had his fill of family farming as an adult, he got a job at the former Griffin’s BBQ in Goldsboro, where he spent several years learning the business that would occupy him for the rest of his life.
In 1962, he bought the former Hill’s Barbecue on Highway 70 and opened the place as Wilber’s, which has remained in the same location for 57 years. It has been one of only a handful of remaining restaurants in the eastern part of the state where whole hogs, often augmented by extra pork shoulders, are cooked entirely over hardwood coals. Even though this authentic pit cooking tradition comes with a hefty price tag for cutting and splitting wood year round, Shirley says, “I think the finished product is worth the effort.”
In the barbecue business, as in real estate, location plays a major role. For a long time, what is now 70 Business, which passes directly in front of Wilber’s place east of Goldsboro, was clogged with day traffic between Raleigh, Kinston and points east. Before construction of the Goldsboro by-pass, that stretch of highway was also one of three main routes to the ocean in North Carolina. Nearly everyone from the Triangle, the Triad, the western piedmont and the mountains traveling toward the Crystal Coast area, Ocracoke and Hatteras passed within 30 yards of Wilber’s front door.
For its entire existence, Wilber’s has had the same homey, laid-back feel: red brick and white trim on the outside, knotty pine paneling and red-checked tablecloths on the inside. Big, open dining rooms are located on either side of a central lunch counter and bustling take-out area, allowing Wilber’s to seat more than 300 at peak periods, which used to occur basically every Friday and Sunday. On a busy Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend, Shirley’s staff would routinely cook over 100 whole pigs.
It may well be that reopening with reduced hours of operation will smooth out what has sometimes seemed like a frantic pace at Wilber’s. Shirley has always enjoyed visiting with his customers and spending long hours at the restaurant, but he may find that a more measured pace is appropriate to his age and resent circumstances.
In any case, let’s hope that he is soon able to iron out any financial difficulties, reopen the restaurant doors and keep that wonderful, wood-cooked barbecue coming off the pits.
Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is Bob’s review of Marabella in Washington and Greenville for UNCTV.