June 28, 1960: The double doors of the now-fabled red barn swung wide, receiving the first guests of novice restaurateurs Thad Eure, Jr. and Charles Winston. What was this mysterious red building perched atop a hill so far from civilization? Unbeknownst to all, that June night fifty years ago, the southern gentlemen with no previous restaurant experience established both a landmark and a legend far outside of Raleigh where nobody else dared conceive success.
In June of 2010, some 18,000 nights and 13,000,000 guests later, generations continue to make the Angus Barn, affectionately nicknamed “Big Red” by Thad, Jr., a cherished part of their lives. All guests experience what Thad Eure, Jr. and Charles Winston originally envisioned: incomparable hospitality; excellent value; a meal of impeccable quality; and the rich, rustic Americana ambience for which the Barn is now known across the globe. Now owned and operated by Van Eure, daughter of the late Thad Eure, Jr., and staffed by a loyal, hardworking team, many of whom have built their careers here, the double doors of the Barn open 363 evenings a year.
Back in the day when the Barn was an outpost far from the familiar neighbourhoods of Raleigh, nightly crowds who traveled the distance kindly forgave many honest mistakes including the initial absence of watering stations. Through its trials and triumphs, multitudes of loyal guests have made the Angus Barn one of the nation’s 50 highest-grossing independent restaurants, consistently ranked as one of the 100 best restaurants
Field of dreams
In 1959, Eure and Winston bought 50 acres of land on Highway 70 for $6,750. The pastoral setting originally believed by many to be misguided, halfway between Raleigh and Durham, proved critics wrong because it was convenient for business people who needed access to what would become Research Triangle Park and Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Although it is hard to fathom today, in 1960 RDU International Airport was little more than a landing strip where fewer than 20 flights arrived and departed each day. In fact, the area where the Barn exists was so desolate that Highway 70 was merely a two-lane road with phones stationed every few miles. The Barn was built 12 years before bustling Crabtree Valley Mall existed. Thankfully guests who traveled the distance paid far less attention to the distance and much more to the memories they made.
If you build it they will come…
The original restaurant seated 275 and cost approximately $200,000 to build. Who would dare extend credit of that amount to two young dreamers whose dreams far exceeded their limited assets? Acquiring the necessary capital to pay for construction challenged the young hopefuls. Bank after bank declined Eure and Winston, politely referring to their venture as “impossible” and “a poor risk.” Borrowing from every person who had a modicum of faith in them, Eure and Winston raised money. Finally in desperation, Eure turned to his father, the late North Carolina Secretary of State Thad Eure, Sr., for the majority of the capital. In good faith, the senior Eure mortgaged his home to guarantee the loan, proclaiming, “I believe in those boys!” Construction began immediately.
The Angus Barn owners and their wives, Alice and Flo, poured their energies and time into planning every detail of the restaurant. No task was too menial, no goal too daunting for the young couples. If experience is the best teacher, the young restaurateurs had much to learn. When the first Saturday night crowd in 1960 produced a mountain of dishes, the dishwashers walked off the job, leaving the young couples to clean dishes from late Saturday night through sunrise on Sunday. Later Eure recalled that although he appreciated his kitchen staff, he did not realize how much he valued their opinions until the dishwashing disaster. Throughout their first week, using a three-compartment sink, the employees warned that it would be insufficient come Saturday night. Eure later remarked, “That’s when we learned our first big lesson: Listen to your staff and they will guide you wisely.”
One fateful night the quality of the food was not of the caliber guests had come to expect in the short history of the Barn. Rose Beach, the Angus Barn’s very first employee, recalled that Eure and Winston walked outside and sat on the fence to assess the problem. When they returned, they sat at every table with every guest; apologized for the less than stellar dining experience; and made things right. For years to come, Eure and Winston relied on their guests and employees to make suggestions and to offer advice. From her parents Van learned the value of hiring and training cream-of-the-crop employees; listening to them; and trusting them to find the best, most practical solutions to problems. Van calls this process the “20 Foot Rule.” This means that every employee within 20 feet of a problem should contribute to the solution. After 26 years of tackling hundreds of challenges with her entire team, today Van fondly refers to her
On the morning of February 7, 1964, Eure and Winston stood powerlessly as they watched fire reduce their dreams to smoke and ash. The restaurateurs grieved the loss of their dream that in a few short years had become one of the most beloved establishments in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. In the ashes only the windmill and a pair of andirons that stood in the huge lobby fireplace remained.
Only recently did Van meet the gentleman who reported the fire. He recalled how frustrating it was searching for an emergency phone in the late night hours in the rural area surrounding the Barn.
Build it bigger and better
Eure and Winston, who’d built their outstanding reputation defying odds, turning doubters into believers and righting wrongs, vowed to provide jobs to each Angus Barn employee during the reconstruction process. These resourceful, gung-ho restaurateurs either found jobs for employees at other area restaurants or provided construction jobs. In order to open within one year of the fire, shifts were created to rebuild around-the-clock. Teams of workers laboured tirelessly to meet and beat the one-year deadline. On January 27, 1965, just eleven months after “Big Red” fell, the red double doors of the new Angus Barn swung open to welcome the public again. The new Barn, towering upon the bluff that overlooks Highway 70, fulfilled the promise Eure and Winston made to turn adversity into prosperity.
In one of the finest ironies in the long history of the Barn, Eure later recalled that the very lending institutions that once deemed their venture “a poor risk” lined up to offer the visionaries capital to rebuild. Flattered by the offers, they viewed them as reassurance that their vision was still intact, inspired and auspicious. This time, Eure and Winston were here to stay!
The complimentary cheese and relish tray, the red and white gingham uniforms and barrels overflowing with polished red apples remained. Originally a barrel of red apples was simply a decorative idea. When guests began taking apples with them as they left the Barn, Eure and Winston seized on the idea of making apples the Barn’s “after dinner mints.” Although spending $15,000 a year on apples seemed cost prohibitive, Eure reasoned, “We let our customers do our advertising. It’s the little things, like apples, that guests remember.” Like her father, today Van continues these original traditions with exceptional generosity. Van remarks, “Word of mouth never ceases to be the best advertising.”
In November of 1978, after eighteen years of their legendary partnership, Eure and Winston decided to consider separate paths. The quandary: Who would sell his share of the Barn to the other? Southern gentlemen that they were, they agreed to a coin toss. The person who won the toss would decide whether to buy or to sell. Winston won. And Winston decided to sell. Winston’s achievements since leaving the Barn are as myriad as they are legendary. Today he is one of the most respected hoteliers and restaurateurs in the southeast without whom the Barn may never have existed.
Wild Turkey Homecoming
History has certainly blessed the Barn with many fortunate moments, but it also issued one of the cruellest. In September of 1988, Thad Eure, Jr., who earned a stellar reputation among his peers both nationally and statewide as “Mr. Hospitality,” met his greatest challenge when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. True to the exceptional character of this gentle giant, he met each day of his final few months with optimism, genuine concern for others and his insistence that nothing was more important than honouring each restaurant guest as the most important person on earth. Sadly in November of 1988, the world lost a great man at the young age of 56.
"A brilliant, guiding light for the modern food service industry was extinguished with the death of Thad Eure, Jr. on Friday, November 18. While I grieve with the those who knew him well, I grieve more deeply for those who were never blessed with the opportunity to feel the firmness of his grip, soar with the sparkle of his eyes, bathe in the warmth of his humour and smile, and be chided yet guided, admonished yet encouraged by the tone and enthusiasm of his voice. He truly personified hospitality - for thousands of co-workers and millions of guests." - Dick Chase - Golden Corral
Innumerable honours and tributes followed Thad’s untimely passing. Having served as president of both the North Carolina Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association, annual awards were established in his honour. After Eure’s death, Alice and Van continued to co-own and manage his beloved “Big Red,” the centerepiece of his restaurant empire.
In 1989, Wine Spectator magazine bestowed its coveted Grand Award upon the Angus Barn for the first time. It would be an honour repeated each year for the next twenty-plus years. It had been Thad, Jr.’s vision to build a wine list to rival those of California restaurants. In May of 1991, Alice and Van collaborated on one of the Barn’s boldest initiatives yet: The basement that once housed stacked boxes and cases of wine in a place called “the cages” was transformed into a spectacular, 28,000 bottle wine cellar and dining room for the ultimate dining experience. The cellar rivaled the most celebrated restaurant wine cellars throughout the United States and the world, featuring 1,200 types of wines.
Once more, a heartbreaking chapter of Angus Barn history was written in the late spring of 1997 when Alice Eure faced ovarian cancer. Renowned for her awe-inspiring optimism and grace, Alice courageously endured a grueling battle for six months. On October 3, 1997 Alice also lost her battle with cancer. A lovely, gracious lady who played an integral role at her husband’s side as their restaurant empire grew, Alice left a legacy unmatched in the industry. With great courage and grace, she steered the Barn through its potentially perilous course after Thad’s death.
After Alice’s death, many speculated that Van would simply sell the Barn and pursue other causes that she championed such as animal rights. Others speculated that she had many options that would lead her far from “Big Red.” Like her father, Van loves to defy those who doubt her, and she can be counted on to surprise and inspire. “I never once considered selling the Barn because our loyal guests and employees are like family
Still A Family Affair
The Angus Barn is now owned and operated by Van Eure. Van believes that each guest is the most important person on earth while dining at the Barn. She believes in the Golden Rule of customer care: The customer has the gold and, therefore, makes the rules. “I may own the Barn but the customer is the true boss. Customers can choose to close your doors simply by taking their business elsewhere. I am here to guide my Angus Barn family in recognition that each guest who walks through our doors is our boss.”
Van continued to expand and build her parents’ dream in 2008 as she and husband Steve Thanhauser opened The Pavilion at the Angus Barn. A spectacular, lakeside oasis, The Pavilion was created for special events including weddings, receptions, corporate events and banquets. The Pavilion seats 400 comfortably in rustic, wooded splendour.
The Pavilion is testament to the most significant Eure family trait: optimistic stubbornness. As the Barn completed the first decade of the new century, not only did Van and Steve build The Pavilion, their dream thrives.
The Wild Turkey Lounge is open 3pm - 11pm Mon. - Sat. and 3pm - 10pm on Sun. The Dining Rooms are open from 5:30pm - 10:30pm Mon. - Fri., 5pm - 10:30 pm on Sat. and 5pm - 10pm on Sun.
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