Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Homeplace founder had recipe for success

Joe Kennedy

Joe Kennedy is routinely named the region's best writer by readers of The Roanoker magazine.

Recent columns

Many a person doubted the wisdom of Harold Wingate's determination to open a family-style, all-you-eat restaurant in the heart of Catawba.

Nobody would drive that far, or cross Catawba Mountain, for such a thing, they said.

Wingate told them he would try the experiment for 25 years.

"If it's not working by then," he'd say, "we're going to give it up."

On Sept. 17, the Homeplace will celebrate its 25th anniversary. As usual, it will be closed -- because the date falls on a Monday.

The Homeplace always has opened its doors Thursdays through Sundays. And it never has failed.

Wingate knew there was a niche for what he had in mind, and he knew the appeal of Catawba's field-and-mountain beauty.

Add a restored farmhouse surrounded by ample open land, an unvarying, down-home menu of country foods prepared the old-fashioned way and a price that's still low for what you get, and you have one of the region's major success stories of the past quarter-century.

Wingate, 78, has had help, of course. There are his hardworking servers, cooks and such; his family, notably his son Kevin, a mainstay upfront and at the register; acres of free publicity from newspapers and magazines, relieving him of the need to advertise; and his customers, who, at the busiest times, don't mind waiting two hours or more to get in the door.

That's where the setting comes in.

If you ever have to wait outside the Homeplace, you may find yourself relaxing into your surroundings. You may notice the cares of the big world disappearing, and you will see families talking, children playing and the sky's colors changing.

This is the work of the natural world. It doesn't appear on the Homeplace's menu, but it's an irreplaceable part of the experience.


The Homeplace

  • Where: On U.S. 311 just over Catawba Mountain
  • Phone: (540) 384-7252
  • Hours: 4 to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 to 8 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays
  • Cost: $13 for adults, $7 for children ages 3 to 11. Free for children under 3.

Harold Wingate is among my favorite people, not only because I admire his work ethic, but also his directness and his sense of humor.

He never thought the restaurant's location would be a drawback. His other job -- running Wingate Appraisal Service in several states and driving thousands of miles to do it -- taught him the value of a good meal.

"I knew I would drive 50 miles out of my way for a meal if I knew it was going to be super," he said.

The Homeplace is more like 20 or 30 miles from most of the Roanoke Valley. Twenty miles with a bargain at the end -- fried chicken and a choice of roast beef or ham (or, on Thursday nights, barbecue), mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, cole slaw, homemade biscuits, to name a few things, plus tea, lemonade, coffee or water and fruit cobbler, all priced at $13 for adults and $7 for children.

And, again, it's all-you-can-eat.

A few things did surprise the founder.

First, he had to expand, and quickly. The dining room addition opened in December 1983. Now, the restaurant seats about 170 people. A banquet room downstairs brings the total to about 250.

Second, he learned that, try as they might, people couldn't always divine when the restaurant would be less busy. In fact, they often outguessed themselves.

For example, many thought that by waiting till the Sunday after-church crowd finished, they could walk right in. The trouble was that many others chose the same approach.

On the other hand, on Virginia Tech game days, the place is not necessarily packed -- probably because people assume it will be.

Last May, Virginia Tech's graduation occurred on a Saturday and Mother's Day was the next day. The Homeplace served some 4,400 meals, its second-highest total. Each of those occasions draws huge crowds annually.

October, when the leaves change, is the restaurant's busiest month.

It's always hard for Wingate and his staff to estimate how much food to prepare late Sunday afternoons. The customers may number 50 or 250 -- vital information to a restaurant that does not shrink from salting its fried chicken or flavoring its beans with fat meat right in the cook pot.

Wingate calls the fare "all the things people tell you nobody will eat."

And he smiles, because he knew differently.