by Laurie Paolicelli
Small towns, no matter how big they become, are defined by a crossroads marking the heart of the place. For Chapel Hill, that’s the intersection of Columbia and Franklin Streets. It’s an iconic crossing, shimmering with history’s patina, the streets still scorched from bonfires celebrating UNC’s sports victories from years past. And though the intersection and original buildings may remain, what occupies them does not. The building that for years housed Spanky’s Restaurant (1977-2018) was built by by Andrew Jackson Brockwell, entrepreneur and property developer, way back in 1902.
The building is still known as the Brockwell Building and is made from handmade bricks, formed from the clay removed to make Columbia Street. Sloan Drug Company occupied the space from 1948-1974. Sloan Drugs was a place where you could sit at a real soda fountain, buy sundries, and even use a “free” telephone. Imagine. Old timers still refer to it as “Sloan’s Corner.”
Brockwell’s daughter, Fanny, left the building to Sloan Drugs proprietor Bill Sloan when she died. Sloan’s son, Mark, explains why.
“Our father was a rare pharmacist who was generous in providing medicine to farmers and those in need, even if they couldn’t pay right away. He had an informal “credit” system that sometimes translated to barter. Many farmers paid him back with produce. We would often find fresh eggs, vegetables, and other delicious goods out our backdoor on Saturday mornings. Ms. Brockwell willed the building to our father for his ‘humanitarian contributions to Chapel Hill’.”
“My father’s family has a long history in Orange County so selling this building has been bittersweet,” said Mark, who has recently moved back to the area. “My grandfather was Chief of Police in Chapel Hill for many years and before that he was sheriff of Orange County. While he was sherrif, the family lived on Queen Street in Hillsborough, and my uncle Will Richmond and his wife Marguerite lived in the Teardrop House (now Teardrop Inn). My wife and I retired to the area after working as arts professionals in California, New York, and for the past twenty six years, in Charleston, SC.
The Sloan family had hoped to find a small independent restaurant owner to lease or purchase the building after Lula’s (Spanky’s successor) succumbed to the pandemic, but it’s one hundred and twenty years old and needs a lot of work; most small businesses don’t have that kind of capital. If the building was going to survive, they knew it was going to take deep pockets.
Mark and his remaining family worked with CBRE out of Raleigh and courted several offers but were impressed by the leadership of Raising Cane’s, based in Baton Rouge. Raising Cane’s was one of just three restaurant brands named to Forbes’ “Best Employers for New Grads” Top 100 list, and the company’s “fast-paced, fun culture and growth opportunities” earned it a spot-on Glassdoor’s coveted “one hundred Best Places to Work in the US” list in 2021.
“They want to renovate the property with dignity and maintain the historic significance which is important to us,” Mark says. “We felt it was time to let it go, but we remain keenly interested in the health of Franklin Street. We are hoping Raising Cane’s will breathe new life into that prime location, and transform it once again into a destination corner.”
Raising Cane’s is known for its one hundred percent premium white meat chicken tenderloins that are marinated, hand-battered, and cooked to order. The menu is also renowned for its craveable – some say addictive – secret-recipe Cane’s sauce, crinkle-cut fries, coleslaw, Texas toast, freshly brewed sweet tea, and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
And what’s going on across the street?
In the meantime, on the other corner of Franklin and Columbia Streets, once home to Strowd Motor Company, a new restaurant has opened, Seafood Destiny Express.
Seafood Destiny is known for its seafood dishes like made-to-order crab legs, boils, lobster, and shrimp plates.
“From the backyard to the boulevard” is how Greensboro resident Anthony Knotts summarizes his journey to Seafood Destiny. It started as a food truck and now has two restaurants in Greensboro and the new restaurant in Chapel Hill.
“I told my kids if they would get into college, I would pay for their school,” Knotts said. “I had this crazy idea that started in my backyard. My goal was to create a crab boil that I could sell.”
In 2020, Knotts created a scholarship named in George Floyd’s honor. It’s open to African Americans living in North Carolina.
“I went to college, I dropped out,” Knotts said. “I struggled with tuition. A scholarship here and a scholarship there could make a difference in somebody’s life.”
From Bill Sloan to Anthony Knotts, history on this hallowed corner is made by good people making a big difference. It’s not always about what is in the building, but who.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.