The burnt orange walls of Cafe Gouda have seen 20 years of history. Customers have come and gone in the small, colorful Hickory restaurant. Staff has grown up together, countless meals have been savored in the teal booths, and thousands of cups of coffee have been enjoyed there. Many more are to come.
Margie Black started the Hickory restaurant with no experience in restaurants, management or food. She had an idea and a dream it would last.
“We just wanted something different from burgers and barbecue,” Black said.
She and a former business partner opened the restaurant 20 years ago this month in the same location it inhabits now, at the end of a brick building in a shopping center on N.C. 127 North in Viewmont.
During the two decades, Black’s customer base has grown. She’s amassed droves of regulars who stop in three to five times a week. They come so often, many make sure she and her staff know when they’re on vacation so the Cafe Gouda staff won’t worry.
Those relationships are the foundation of her business, Black said. Through thick and thin, her loyal customers keep the business running, even through the most difficult challenge yet — COVID-19 — when their sales dropped by 50 percent.
“Our customers stepped up,” Black said. “So we made it work.”
This week they celebrate 20 years as a Cafe Gouda family, Black said — the staff and the customers.
Tabatha Harris has been with Black for 14 of the 20 years. Other staff members have stuck around for long stretches of time, as well, Harris said. Black runs a tight ship but treats them all like family, she said.
“I just enjoy coming to work, I love it here,” she said.
Together, the two can reminisce on years of triumphs, laughs and some failures.
Early on, Black expanded Cafe Gouda to four locations. The expansion turned out to be too much to handle, she said.
“Bigger isn’t always better,” she said.
She was spread too thin, but more importantly, she couldn’t make the connections she needed with customers and staff.
Once they settled on one location for good, Black found what worked. Cafe Gouda started with just breakfast and lunch. Eventually, Black said, customers asked for dinner with table service, too.
Different menu items — all displayed in colorful writing on a black chalkboard above the counter — have come and gone. But one sandwich may stand about the rest. Black and Harris are quick to name the Gouda Delight as their favorite and rattle off its mouth-watering ingredients, cracked pepper turkey, Gouda cheese, lettuce and apricot mustard.
The restaurant has developed good vibes not just through its staff and food, but also its bright and airy decor. The walls are covered in paintings by local artists, which change every three months. This month, a large painting of swirls hangs over one booth, a painting of a bundle of sunflowers graces another and the image of a river draws the eye to another wall. Metal sculptures of suns act as scones for small lights that cast a warm glow around the restaurant, and large windows along one wall let real sunlight pour in.
It’s the perfect place to gather together, Black said.
Good memories have made the place special, she said. Even one of a customer, Pam, getting stuck in a restroom for two hours makes Harris and Black giggle. Pam always takes a book to the bathroom now, they said.
It hasn’t always come easy, but Black said she hopes to continue serving her community, supporting local artists, schools and farmers, and making memories for years to come.
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