A Walk Along the Tracks

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

By Janice A. Davis

Historic buildings have always drawn my interest, even at first glance. Driving down Main St. a year and a half ago, seeing the train, hearing its whistle while moving slowly down the track was a special moment for my husband and myself. We could sense and feel the nostalgia and activities of life and businesses of a previous era. We could also envision the possibilities of new life and energy once again in Rocky Mount’s future.

After moving here from Maine and seeing the prospect of revitalization with all its many segments, we now realize more than ever that Rocky Mount has an abundance of possibilities to become, once again, a shining star in North Carolina.

Offering to assist the Downtown Manager, Kevin Harris, I asked him how I might be of help personally. He requested that I visit business and owners, gain insight into the reasons they chose to be an active part of Downtown Rocky Mount and share those ideas with others. Each is a story within itself and worthy to be shared. It has and continues to be, a very enlightening and joyous experience to meet the owners and managers of various types of businesses and organizations.

Individually, they all have shared their own love of this historic downtown and felt drawn to help bring vitality back to this beautiful area. They too can see into the future as Kevin and I do. Rocky Mount has a magnetic appeal to many others also as you will see if you choose to read these personal glimpses into the future and growing businesses along the tracks.

Blanche’s Bistro

One block from the tracks at 116 Tarboro Street sits a new jazz-themed restaurant and bar called Blanche’s Bistro. Walking through the glass doors, it seems that you are being transported to New Orleans or Beal Street in Memphis. Choose your city and enjoy the sounds of jazz, unique cuisine, wonderful aromas, and quaint seating arrangements. You can even dine seemingly street side at the elevated window tables.

Blanche’s Bistro opened shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak, and with the support of community, loyal customers and friends, was able to hold on and has begun to rebound, similar to other downtown businesses.

Neva Blackwell, co-owner and operator, is a customer service queen just like her great staff members. They strive to welcome new patrons and celebrate repeat customers after having impressed them from their first visit. After a few visits Neva most likely will include you in her index file, notating your regular menu choices and preference.

As with other Rocky Mount downtown businesses, they enjoy meeting new people and introducing them to venues and activities they may not be aware of. Downton Manager Kevin Harris is busy but makes time for Blanche’s turkey and cheese panini, and best in town salmon salad. He enjoys the food there and so will you!

The Bistro has a private room for meetings, celebrations, or any type of special event. This paneled private room is right out of the old speakeasy days. Sipping your favorite beverage, you will think that you are living in a different era. The two outdoor patios are decorated in the old New Orleans motif with small white lights and tropical plants. They are perfect for a romantic encounter, meal, or simply enjoying any liquid refreshment.

The Bistro offers specialties which include sandwiches, soups and guaranteed fresh salads, as well as a variety of other dishes. It is wonderful to be able to choose an area in which to dine and it can be different each visit. It’s a mini adventure.

Various live musicians perform on their stage Friday and Saturday evenings. A jazz band is featured once a month. Hours vary Wednesday thru Saturday with special offerings on Friday and Saturday evenings. When the Event Center reopens, the business hours will be expanded.

Some of Neva’s most requested orders are her homemade daily soup creations. You would need to order her famous seafood bisque early on Friday before it sells out. These are just a few of the items offered and even though it has recently just reopened, they have a great clientele who experience Neva’s Bistro slogan of “Blending Cultures, creativity, and cuisine.” Each time we have been there, we felt welcomed and have become part of the “Bistro Family.” It’s a wonderful place to meet old and new friends.

Neva and Blanche’s have joined Kevin and Larema Coffee House across the street, D-Chill Spot around the corner, Marcus Anderson from Trax at Station Square and other downtown eateries to offer special downtown events. Unity affairs are currently being held with many more to come. Friends and neighbors often come together at Blanche’s for a common cause, as in a recent event to honor those who have died in Edgecombe and Nash Counties from Covid-19. Families were able to write their loved one’s names on a park bench which now resides in the window of Blanche’s Bistro. Other events like this will be planned in the future and are another reminder why downtown is a great place to come, fellowship and enjoy.

The Bistro is named after the Grandmother of Andre Knight. Her picture along with other “photos of history” adorn the walls of the main dining room. You will feel like you are sitting in a museum as you glance around the room. This was the feeling when they hosted the Buck Leonard Birthday Night where another local business owner, Celeste Beatty, prepared and offered tasting of her beer made for the event. Two of her Harlem Brew beers were served and others are available at The Bistro. Celeste is joining the downtown revitalization effort all the way from New York.

My husband and I are proof that those of us from the north are loving our lives here and the adventures which come with it, especially in the historic downtown. You are always welcome to help the revitalization efforts by shopping, visiting, or especially contemplating opening a new business.

Central Cafe

As one of the oldest businesses which continue to operate in the inner city of Rocky Mount, Central Cafe has truly been an institution since 1927. Central Cafe is located on the corner of Church Street and Western Avenue and is recognized by its bright red and striped awning. This restaurant serves food six days a week. It boasts loyal customers which still form a line waiting patiently to place their order. These lines have been forming for 93 years.

They initiated the first takeout hamburgers and hot dogs served in Rocky Mount. They are still famous today for their chili and coleslaw toppings. Grandparents are now taking their grandchildren for this treat just as they themselves did years ago. Loyal customers continue to eat their favorite comfort food for breakfast, lunch, and soon can again enjoy dinner at Central Cafe.

The Hardy family still retains ownership as it has for the last three generations. Lewis Hardy now operates the business his grandfather started in 1927; his parents ran the business, then his uncle Robert, and Lewis purchased it a year ago. This location is the fourth and is located at 132 S. Church Street. It is a matter of blocks from the railroad tracks downtown.

After 32 years in its current location, a few changes have been made. It now supports new paint, floors, extra booths and the memorabilia has been changed. It still retains its regular hours. Customers can sit in their booths in a second room which is also appropriate for parties, meetings, and gatherings. A new menu board is soon to be hung on the freshly painted walls while the outstanding menu items remain the same.

One and a half years ago, during my first visit to Rocky Mount, my realtor said, “I have to take you to my favorite place, Central Cafe. I used to eat there as a child.” Now that we are residents here and trying local restaurants, and loving the historic districts, I know how correct she was.

Waiting to visit with Central Cafe’s owner, Lewis Hardy, the smell in the cafe was wonderful. Looking around, I felt like I was at home and as a child in my parent’s soda fountain in their Rexall drug store in Florida. Central Cafe exhibits all of the finest things I learned from my experiences at the fountain. Lewis treated me to dinner and then sent me home with one of their famous hotdogs for my husband. I had a chili cheeseburger with coleslaw and tasty onion rings. Downtown Manager Kevin Harris prefers the cheeseburger, which he says reminds him of Five Guys.

I was invited back to meet some of the “breakfast regulars” and met two of Rocky Mount’s finest businessmen. I enjoyed hearing about the cafe, the downtown, and the long-time businesses of Ed Strange and Jack Pattisall. Ed owns Imperial Day Cleaners. Most days Ed meets friends for breakfast here and then sets off to work. Jack is now retired from his business, Pattisall’s Oriental Rugs. What a joy to hear both men speak with fondness for the Hardys, their staff and food. Both knew the Hardy brothers well. Jack said “The Cafe is an institution here.” He has been a faithful customer many years. Ed has been coming for lunch for over 25 years and having breakfast here for the past 20 years. “It’s one of my favorite routines,” Ed says. Jack related the time he was paying his bill and saw on TV a plane fly into The Twin Towers.

Lewis noted that he wants to continue his family’s legacy, at least until the cafe’s birthday in 2027. He chose to get involved again and says, “Because purchasing the cafe from my uncle was an act of love. I wanted to continue my family’s love for Rocky Mount. It is a way to support the community and my staff.”

Incidentally, Lewis created the Champion Sportswear logo and lives the Champion philosophy, “play like a champion, and it takes a little more to be a champion.” Lewis is also a former N.C. State athlete and coach. He is well respected in the textiles industry. Lewis Hardy has the champion spirit and has a great desire to see downtown Rocky Mount explode onto the 2021 scene.

Help us all by getting involved in our city and local communities so that we can become champions also. As Kevin Harris says, “Don’t criticize, but patronize our downtown and be a part of its renewal.”

Meet here with friends, family, co-workers, civic or church groups, and be part of our local history at Central Cafe. Unforgettable experiences are waiting to be found and enjoyed just around the corner, and “Along the Tracks.”

Trax Coffee Bar

The delicious smell of coffee and the soothing sounds of a famous musician waft through the air while walking the halls of the historic site called “Station Square” in downtown Rocky Mount.

TRAX Coffee Bar sits one block away from the historic Helen P. Gay Train Station built in 1893 where multiple train lines service the city of Rocky Mount today. Sipping the “And Coffee” brand created by the owner of this unique shop, Marcus Anderson, brings new meaning to “Coffee & Music.”

Marcus Anderson and his partner Allohn Willis opened TRAX COFFEE BAR in January, 2020. Prior to closing due to Covid-19, they welcomed customers and hosted business meetings and those just wanting to enjoy a superb coffee creation.

Reopening in late summer, their busy days continued. TRAX Coffee Bar is the ideal place to meet, work, check your emails, text, or just take a deep breath. Two “Unity Affair” gatherings have been held in the evenings with many more planned for the future. Individuals and downtown businesses and organizations will be drawn together to embrace a friendly, diverse, happy and relaxing experience. Present also are vendors, food trucks and musicians, with special performances by the talented Marcus himself. Marcus Anderson is a famous composer, singer and saxophonist with 19 albums and CDs. He toured with PRINCE for 4 years as well as with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Ceelo Green and Sheila E. After meeting Marcus, I just say, “Alexa, play Marcus Anderson,” and I have my very own home concert while sipping coffee.

Meeting Marcus and his three other baristas; Hannah, Faith and Darius, was a special joy. They act as a close family and this is one of his favorite parts of the business. As a matter of fact, once you visit TRAX, you too will feel like family.

The shop serves its own brand of coffee, “AND COFFEE.” The name comes from the phrase, “coffee & music.” “AND COFFEE” is sold exclusively at TRAX and online on their website. Various creations are offered, hot or cold, along with muffins, ice cream served in a bowl or cone, and cold drinks and beer. As a side note, I met a customer there, Celeste Beatty, who is the owner of Harlem Brewing Co. She produces “The Sugar Hill Beer,” offered for sale at the shop.

If you are there at lunch, you can pick up a jerk chicken wrap made by “D Chill Spot,” another well-known downtown establishment.

Marcus has always been passionate about coffee! He has coupled his music and coffee business since 2015. While creating music, rehearsing or performing, he stated: “Coffee was always the thing that gave me a quick pick-me-up all my life.”

He chose Rocky Mount as the home for TRAX because he felt “the city was an up and coming town.” He loves being part of the city’s downtown revitalization! Continuing with his music career and operating TRAX, he occasionally acts as a barista too. He never sits still to relax. You can often find him volunteering his musical skills and talents with Ron Green and the children at The Boys & Girls Club within their music and drama activities.

His great desire is to bring people together in a responsible social distancing atmosphere through the unity affairs. He plans to hold his next event in October. Many ideas are being presented for the future including Comics & Coffee, Taco Tuesday and other unity affairs with musicians and other businesses involved as well as food trucks.

As I was interviewing Marcus, he was working on his latest venture, a hero comic book, named “THE CREATIVES,” along with the matching album and CD.

As I visit with each of these entrepreneurs, their enthusiasm and excitement for the downtown seemed so inspiring! Consider “YOUR PART” in uniting the people as well as businesses and organizations in our great dynamic INNER CITY. Join the fun, have a coffee and make others smile. Enjoy your life a little more here in Rocky Mount. Listen to the soothing jazz tunes by our celebrity Marcus.

“Coffee & Music” are always a great combination.

The Bath Place

The Bath Place is located in the famous Douglas Building on the corner of N.E. Main St. and Thomas St. This block is a showplace for Rocky Mount’s revitalization efforts. I feel like I’m strolling down a street in New Orleans or Beal St. in Memphis as I casually enter the stores and long to own one myself and greet customers on a daily basis.

Kimberly Clayton, who is the owner and miracle artisan and operator of this lovely corner shop has welcomed her customers and friends for 8 years at its current location. After being a businesswoman for 10 years in another career Kimberly began a search to make soap for family members. This desire brought out her creative talents and a new world began to open up for her. This love for her new venture led her to her current successful bath and spa business here in Rocky Mount.

She sells her handmade products in her shop, The Bath Place, over the internet, in Whole Food Market, at LaRema’s Coffee and various boutiques. Kimberly is one of the happiest shop owners I’ve ever met. She graciously welcomes everyone with her beautiful smile. While I was visiting with her, Keyana Walston ran in on her lunch break. She works at nearby City Hall and wanted to get one of her favorite soaps. I could tell she was a repeat customer while sensing the “family feel” of the two ladies. First time visitors, like myself, immediately become family to Kimberly.

She is requesting anyone seeking high quality bath and spa products to stop by and try her amazing products. The aroma in the store is wonderful, making you feel great just by smelling the scents. With such an extensive supply of soaps, lotions, candles, bath bombs and lip balms, there’s certainly something of interest for everyone!

For a joy for all your senses drop by Tuesday through Saturday from noon to six. Consider gifts for others as well as yourself. Each handmade bar of soap is a unique individual creation and truly a work of art. Using her products benefits everyone, even the environment since they are each chemical free.

Kimberly Clayton is an avid supporter of downtown revitalization and knows other businesses should consider opening a store in the inner city. Her successful venture can be motivational for you too. Join the family of current patrons and businesses and experience your revitalization dream for yourself by joining those dedicated to bringing back the enthusiasm in Rocky Mount along the tracks.

Dynamik Learning

Meeting Tia Lucas, owner of Dynamik Learning, is the beginning of a dynamic educational experience for children, teens and adults. Her tutorial and teaching program center is located at Station Square in inner city Rocky Mount. Entrance to the center is at 169 Nash St.

Educational Hubs are full day programs for elementary and high school students doing virtual studies from their off-site schools. A full staff is able to give personal attention to each student. Needs assessment is important to Tia, Brianna, Tyreia, Brandon and Jasmine. Full day classes are offered as well as after school tutoring. ACT and SAT prep classes are also held at DYNAMIK LEARNING. Sessions are given for teachers preparing for the Teacher PRAXIS. The staff provides the tools and techniques for today’s learning processes giving students skills to cope successfully in their learning environment.

Tia is a certified teacher who left the traditional classroom to venture on her own in a untraditional manner. Her background and experiences allow her the chance to offer her own special skills to her students who can then cope successfully in varied learning processes and excel in areas they might otherwise miss. She and her staff are dedicated to help each student gain confidence and the foundation to build on their abilities.

The philosophy of Dynamik Learning is to teach their students while including the entire family in the learning process. “The home should be as effective as the classroom where parents are guiding the children to learn something new daily at home. Everyday experiences are important as well,” explains Tia. “Learning is continuous; we all help our children learn.”

Tia first opened Dynamik Learning 2014. After outgrowing her three previous facilities she moved to Station Square in 2019. She is rapidly expanding.

As a former teacher myself, I was excited to see the students first-hand. I looked directly into their eyes and saw a light that showed their excitement of the learning processes available to them. The confidence and potential we strive to instill in our younger generation was very evident. They were polite, attentive to their studies, respectful and happy. It was a joy to see them working and later during their lunch and free time in the beautiful courtyard.

When families and individuals are seeking additional teaching and tutorial programs Dynamik Learning is right down the track. This option may just be the right choice! Call Tia at 252-442-0466 to discuss your needs for you and your family.

Station Square is filled with vital retail and service shops as well as different service organizations but there are still a few more suites available to rent or lease. Join the pride and happiness you feel downtown along the historic buildings and our fabulous train station. Be part of those patronizing downtown merchants. Tia Lucas and her staff are doing their part to revitalize Rocky Mount and the world. Won’t YOU help make a difference too?

Affordable 2 Insurance Services

Affordable 2 Insurance Services has been serving its clients for 10 years in Station Square. The very visible storefront is on the corner of Nash and S. W. Main St. It is one of the busiest businesses in this lovely area of the revitalized blocks of downtown Rocky Mount.

Owner, Deborah Johnson, her daughter, Stephanie, and Cynthia, give personal customer care service a new meaning. They offer one on one attention, answering very important questions, giving the highest quality advice to their customers wide range of needs. They represent over eight different companies. These companies offer various policies for home, auto and commercial investments.

Deborah worked for Bottoms Insurance Co. prior to opening her own business. She chose to have and keep her business downtown in the inner city because, as she said, “People have always had an insurance company available in the downtown.”

Stephanie, who has worked with her mom for six years, quickly greets everyone as they enter the office. She knows her clients by name and is ready to assist them at all times.

Deborah excitedly explained, “Customer service is the key! Without quality customer service, people can’t get what they need.”

Stephanie added, “Most of our clients are on a fixed income and very faithful in making their payments. They need to save as much money as possible. They come in the office because we are convenient and make them feel like family.” She went on to say, “When people come in, we take the extra time to go through complete details about their insurance needs and questions. If they don’t understand the insurance fees, they get quite concerned. We help explain those details, taking the next step. We don’t want to just take their money. I think we choose to do more for our customers than others do.”

Looking for a new or different insurance company in an accessible quaint location? Just visit the ladies at AFFORDABLE 2 INSURANCE SERVICES and become part of their huge family of over 2000! As a longtime business in downtown Rocky Mount and part of its ever-growing revitalization, they are encouraging others to join with them along the tracks. Grow your business with them to help. Bring quality services and products to our citizens of Nash and Edgecombe counties as well as statewide.

BOYS AND GIRLS CLUBS OF THE TAR RIVER REGION

This organization thrives in the Rocky Mount area. The corporate offices are
located on the second floor of Station Square at 301 S Church Street along the West Main Street side and overlooking our historic train tracks.

While visiting Ron Green, CEO, and Lisa Meadows, grant writer, we admired a
passing train and relished the familiar sound that trains make. Little did I realize that there was so much to share about the operation and mission of the fifty plus years of service offered to the young people ages 5 to 18 in the Tar River Region. As we wore our masks during my visit, the eyes of Ron and Lisa gleamed as they spoke about their staff and the children involved in their programs.

I immediately felt drawn to the desire to volunteer in any way needed and to spread
word to the community about helping the children served by “The Club” as it is affectionately referred. Currently, there are thirteen sites open. Two dedicated stand-alone sites in Rocky Mount and Nashville. Other sites are located within schools providing tutoring, leadership, and a variety of youth services. I visited the Lucy Anne Boddie Brewer Unit, or the LABB Unit located in Rocky Mount at 405 W. Raleigh Street. It provides an excellent facility containing classrooms, a gym ready for all activities, a cafe, a library, and offices.

Durell Petway, Director of Operations for the organization, along with all of their professional staff has many years of experience and training through the national and local organizations of The Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

All children are welcomed, where they live by with the Club Mission, Code, and Goals. Membership is ten dollars per year and a five-dollar daily fee which includes all services, however, no child is turned away if they cannot afford the fee. A vast majority of the youth are from low-income households and are provided scholarships. The doors open at eight in the morning and close at six in the evening.

The Club’s Mission is “To inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens.” In sharp contrast to national, state and local statistics, the Clubs can boast of a 100% high school graduation rate, and 99% of its members maintaining on-time progression.

Twenty learning and development programs are offered regularly. Character and leadership programs encourage children to rise to local, state and national levels. Ron states, “The Clubs are creating new cycles where each child is celebrated for their unique gifts.” He went on to say, “Our goal is to have positive, productive, and caring young people.”

Covid 19 caused changes to our community and dictated innovative strategies to serve Club members. Game rooms have been converted to classrooms for virtual learning and the Boys and Girls Clubs took the responsibility to provide evening meals for its youth and their families. During this period several local restaurants stepped forward to provide meals at a discount, to include our downtown restaurants. This also provided much needed business for our restaurants as they fought to survive the economic impact of COVID. The meals were greatly appreciated by the children and their families. Ron Green took the opportunity to thank the following Partners for helping the Clubs: Prime Smokehouse, Barely and Burger, D Chill Spot, Tipsy Tomato, Moe & D’s, Lou Reda’s an American Table and Blanche’s Bistro. “They did a fantastic job and added a new meaning to nutrition.”

The Clubs depend upon donations received from partners, corporations, churches, civic organizations, and individuals, as well as local, state and national grants.

I am always encouraging our businesses and citizens to open their doors and
hearts to the benefit of all. I hope you will seriously consider giving to this great
program along the tracks and in our two counties. Reach out to others because it
brightens your life and will make your eyes gleam too. Encourage all children
and their families to check out a nearby Boys & Girls Clubs of America to see
the opportunities in our area. You won’t be disappointed!

Submitted by Janice Davis

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