Former Black-Owned Restaurant in North Carolina Seeks Historic Status
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina
Standing in a parking lot at the corner of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street in West Charlotte, Elloree Erwin, 82, paints a picture of the thriving neighborhood over the decades.
There were the lifelong friends she met on frequent walks from the Double Oaks neighborhood to Johnson C. Smith University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Between classes, Erwin took box office shifts at the Ritz Theater on Beatties Ford Road, built exclusively for the black community.
Along the way, she met people from the neighborhood, from business owners to truck delivery people. People, she said, were proud to say they lived on this side of town. “That was the life of the black community,” Erwin said.
And sitting in one of the most prominent corners of the neighborhood was the McDonald’s cafeteria. Not to be confused with fast food, the cafeteria has been a community staple for decades.
Christopher Dennis, a local developer, bought the 1970s building at 2023 Beatties Ford Road a few years ago with a view to redevelopment.
Dennis originally considered demolishing the building due to its age and other factors. Dennis’ company, E-Fix Development Corp., bought it for $1.25 million in early 2020, according to county property records.
But at a planning meeting shortly after purchasing the building, Dennis was on the phone when he came across an old Charlotte Observer story referring to the building. He learned how John McDonald, a black entrepreneur born in Charlotte, opened his well-known cafeteria in 1970 on this same site.
Dennis knew he couldn’t tear it down.
UNDERSTANDING CHARLOTTE’S STORY
So instead of knocking him down, Dennis decided to host a JP Morgan Chase branch that opened last September.
The interior is mostly undiscovered during the cafeteria’s heyday as a meeting place for the black community. But the exterior of the building still shares many of the same qualities.
That’s why Erwin was looking forward to meeting Dennis on a recent sunny day in March. She had heard of his work along Beatties Ford Road and hoped the historic designation would be approved.
“I’m glad people like you are doing things to revitalize it, bring it back to the original standards and the goals that we all wanted for our neighborhood,” Erwin told Dennis, cars whizzing by. very busy intersection.
Dennis wants it too.
His company is redeveloping a commercial site opposite the old cafeteria. He seeks historical designation to help educate the wider community about the people who paved the way.
“I want people to walk through Beatties Ford Road and not just experience the future, but understand the history,” Dennis said.
WHO WAS JOHN MCDONALD?
McDonald’s cafeteria should not be confused with fast food restaurant.
John McDonald’s small business was “one of the most important spaces for Charlotte’s African-American community,” the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission wrote in a designation report completed last August.
At its March 14 meeting, the commission held a public hearing, the first step in an approval process that will eventually head to city council.
In his early 20s, McDonald moved his family to Brooklyn, New York, where he worked as a cook at a hotel, seafood house and steakhouse, according to the commission’s report. In 1949, he opened his own restaurant called McDonald’s Dining Room.
McDonald later felt called by God to return to Charlotte. Once home, he noticed the popularity of buffet-style cafeterias.
In 1970 he had purchased the building at Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street. It also opened a “mini-center”, with a seafood shop, a beauty and hair salon, an insurance and real estate office and a small grocery store, the report noted.
McDonald’s rented the spaces to young managers for a relatively low rate and employed local students.
The cafeteria grew in popularity, known for both its family atmosphere and a place where politicians and other city officials gathered. McDonald’s served breakfast, lunch and dinner with entrees including ribs, fried fish, mac and cheese and sweet potato pie.
At the time, few businesses in the area were black-owned.
This is despite the fact that the neighborhoods surrounding Beatties Ford Road were predominantly African American. McDonald’s has worked to change that by using its own capital to provide commercial space at reasonable rates for black managers, the report says.
MCDONALD’S UP THE STREET
In 1982 McDonald’s moved the cafeteria to a larger space on Beatties Ford Road. The new location was closer to Interstate 85 at 2812 Beatties Ford Road.
The new spot could accommodate around 250 people. Churches held meetings there. Civic organizations too.
“This cafeteria was the heart of our community,” recalls Erwin. “Everyone was there.
This included Erwin’s sister, Sarah Stevenson.
Stevenson started the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, which met to discuss issues important to the black community. The group gathered over hot coffee at McDonald’s. The forum still exists today.
Whenever Reverend Jesse Jackson came to town, people met him in the cafeteria, Erwin recalled.
The black political caucus would also meet in the cafeteria. Together the members lobbied for better representation in government as well as equal access to things like bank financing. “All we’re still pushing at the moment,” Erwin said.
Stevenson’s forum would grow from its cafeteria roots to a large group that would eventually help people like Dennis, the developer.
“If you were looking to do something or be something in Charlotte,” Dennis said, “and you didn’t go to this forum, it might not have been done.”
At the new location higher up Beatties Ford Road, McDonald’s expanded to include other business ventures. He opened a hotel and amusement park known as Fun City in 1992.
Along the way, his cafeteria has become a “go-to” spot in Charlotte, widely considered the most popular off-chain restaurant in town, the commission’s report said.
A LOSS FOR THE REGULAR
In June 2003, the McDonald’s cafeteria closed. At that time, it was owned by a company whose investors included former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. Gantt and Rep. Mel Watt, a former congressman, cited a tough business climate.
The restaurant, hotel and amusement park fell on hard times after McDonald’s death in 1995 and the restaurant was seized, Observer files show.
Stevenson was saddened by the loss of the community. In a booming city with a high transplant density, the cafeteria was a place where regulars saw each other, Stevenson told an Observer reporter at the time.
KEEPING MCDONALD’S “VISION” ALIVE
The Monuments Commission makes recommendations to the City Council on the designation of historic monuments. A public hearing is scheduled for the McDonald’s cafeteria at the March 28 city council meeting. Council members are also expected to vote on the designation at that time, according to a city spokesperson.
If approved, the building will join 358 other landmark buildings across the county. Other nearby designations include Club Excelsior at 921 Beatties Ford Road. The Grand Theatre, 333 Beatties Ford Road, is also a landmark, along with buildings on the JCSU campus.
Naming the McDonald’s building would give the landmarks commission the power to review the design of the property. Any material changes to the property must first be approved by the commission.
However, this does not prevent demolition. An owner can decide to demolish the building and, according to the law, the commission cannot refuse this request. But he has the power to delay the decision for up to a year to find an alternative.
For Erwin, the building still carries important memories. She remembers McDonald as a father figure.
Dennis, she said, is one of a group of people working to keep that legacy alive.
“(McDonald) was a man who I think had an open heart to do something in his community where his people could come and have a nice place to sit and eat,” Erwin said. “He had a vision for this area.”