By Michelle Cassell
CHAPEL HILL — Something is cooking in Chapel Hill, but it will no longer be fried green tomatoes, sweet potato biscuits and fried chicken at a Rosemary Street institution.
The building that houses Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a local landmark, was listed for sale last week.
The .68-acre lot and 4,226-square-foot building are listed for $3.6 million. The family owners have promised to move to a different location in Chapel Hill once it sells and remain open in the meantime.
“We are trying a new approach. We have our name and want to keep Mama’s legacy in Chapel Hill,” Anita “Spring” Council said.
Council, serving as the spokesperson for the nine family co-owners, told the Local Reporter that the growing development around their current location is not their reason for selling.
“Things got back to almost normal after the pandemic, but there was a shift in our business. So we thought, how do we create something outside this and keep Mama’s brand and legacy?” Council said.
Council cited staffing shortages and a shift to more take-out than eat-in customers due to the pandemic as the main reasons for their decision to re-evaluate and become what she calls “fast casual or takeout” to experience the food more than the destination.
“It was time to think about changing and moving on since we are all getting to retirement age,” Council said.
She wants to set up a model for continued operations for children and grandchildren and told TLR that franchise development is under consideration.
“I have not had a chance to reach out to Mama Dip’s, but it is on our list of things to do. We will do whatever we can to keep their attention and keep them in downtown Chapel Hill,” Chapel Hill Director of Economic Development Dwight Bassett said. “It is understandable that they came through the pandemic and would be looking to have a bit smaller place with a specialized fare and still succeed.”
Mama Dip’s familiar story is one of rags-to-riches. Mildred Council (Mama Dip) started her restaurant with $64 set aside from what she earned as a cook and maid in 1976 working for wealthy Chapel Hill families and fraternities. Mildred told her life story in a PBS documentary.
She grew up on a farm in Chatham County and learned to cook with ingredients her family grew. Mildred described her fried chicken as a form of love.
Being the youngest daughter in a family of seven children, she assumed the role of cook at age nine after her mother died. Even at that young age, she was such a talented cook that her father let her take over.
Mildred married Joe Council in 1947 and started Bill’s Bar-B-Que with him, and developed her famous fried chicken recipe that would become a staple at Mama Dip’s. They divorced in the 1970s. She opened Mama Dip’s in 1976.
Mildred said in the documentary she got her nickname “Dip” from her Father because she was always going to the spring and dipping up water with her long arms. Her nickname is now the brand the family does not intend to sell.
The rest of her story is a legacy of love, southern cooking, and family. She had eight children, all of who worked in the restaurant. She died in 2018 at 89.
“We are selling the property, not the brand,” Spring said. “The brand is my mom’s legacy we will pass to future generations.”
Mama Dip’s became a local hangout, a tourist destination, and a must-visit for UNC students. Mildred published two cookbooks, and created a product line in 1998, selling sauces, salad dressings, cornbread and pancake mix that is marketed online and distributed nationally.
“It is a very emotional time. My thing is that I work my hardest to make this next phase happen,” Council said.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As assignment editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.