No, Bullock's isn't in a particularly old building, or an otherwise striking piece of Durham architecture, but, as far as I can tell, it is the oldest continually-operated restaurant in Durham, and a core element of what makes Durham Durham.
Bullock's started around 1943 when (William) Glen Bullock, who cut grass for the City of Durham, started cooking pigs on the weekend in a cooker behind his home at 611 South Alston Avenue. Glen would take the barbeque around to neighbors, giving them a free sample, and inviting them to order more from him for 35 cents a pound.
The former site of 611 South Alston Avenue, birthplace of Bullock's - now a parking lot., 04.08.09.
And order they did. Glen started by cooking one pig a week, and was soon up to two. The Bullocks had no refrigeration that could handle the increasing number of pigs, so Glen would take the 'dressed' pigs he would purchase from the butcher to City Cold Storage on Blackwell St., and remove them as he needed them to cook on the weekends. Glen's wife and son Tommy were soon helping, going door to door, taking orders and delivering barbeque; people would also come to their house to get barbeque. Per Tommy, his father was cooking and delivering to local restaruants as well, including Foy's Grill, the Green Lantern, and the Blue Light.
By the late 1940s, the Bullocks had gotten permission to build a stand beside their house on South Alston Avenue; Tommy Bullock remembers building the stand with his father.
In 1952, they rented a building out on Highway 70 (Hillsborough Road) near Cole Mill Road, which became the first Bullock's Restaurant. Per a 08.01.12 Herald-Sun article, this had been the location of "the Traveler's Inn." Mrs. Bullock ran the restaurant, getting up at 4am to arrive at the restaurant at 5am. The Bullocks moved from South Alston to East Main St., then Rogers St. near Driver. By 1954, Glen Alston had joined his wife at the restaurant, and they cooked pigs at that location. By the 1960s, the Bullocks had moved their home out to Lasalle St. near Hillsborough.
Site of the 1950s-1960s era Bullock's, now Morgan Mitsubishi, 04.08.09.
Tommy began running the restaurant around 1965. He says that the location near Cole Mill Road was in need of repairs, which the landlord would perform. "The electric system couldn't handle the load," he says. "The lights would go out in the middle of dinner."
The Bullocks purchased land near their house at auction in 1968, and built a new Bullock's Restaurant there in 1970.
Bullock's remains a pillar of Durham today - per Tommy, the food hasn't changed much since the 1950s, and he prides himself on using fresh ingredients and making things the old-fashioned way - where a Brunswick Stew takes hours to cook. Food is served family-style, and the entryway is lined with photographs of the many interesting people that have passed through.
Per a 08.01.12 Herald Sun article by Keith Upchurch:
Bullock’s has fed people from every walk of life – including President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan didn’t dine at the restaurant, but he did eat Bullock’s barbecue for two years, thanks to a special delivery from a U.S. Secret Service agent who made periodic visits to Duke University Hospital for his son’s medical treatment.
The agent would knock on the back door of Bullock’s before it opened, and take delivery of several pounds of barbecue.
“One day, he was in the White House elevator and President Reagan stepped in,” Tommy said.
The agent recommended that Reagan try the barbecue, and he agreed. Reagan loved it, and had the agent bring more to the White House for another two years.
To thank him, Reagan mailed Tommy a personally signed photo of himself. It remains one of Tommy’s prized possessions.
The restaurant’s walls are lined with Hollywood royalty, politicians and sports figures who have either eaten at Bullock’s or had their food catered to them. They include actor Robert Duvall, who has dined at Bullock’s six times in recent years, and Vice President Joe Biden.
Bullock’s food has been shipped all over the country, including Alaska. Some who have had his barbecue catered or shipped to them were the late actress Grace Kelly (Princess Grace) and her husband, Prince Ranier of Monaco; Lucille Ball; Dolly Parton; Marie Osmond; Waylon Jennings; Kenny Rogers; and Kris Kristofferson.
But it’s the loyal Durham customers who are the backbone of the business, and have kept the restaurant thriving while others have come and gone.
One such customer is 75-year-old Gerald Bowen, who has dined at Bullock’s for 50 years.
“The quality of food and the service are great, and you don’t ever leave hungry,” Bowen said. “I can’t say that for all places that I eat – even today.”
“They’re just down-home, nice people,” he said. “They’re friendly, and many of Tommy’s customers are people he’s known all his life and that his daddy knew all his life.”
Another devoted customer, 67-year-old Mike Ray of Durham, said he’s eaten at Bullock’s most of his life.
“They have always had the best food anywhere around here, and Tommy Bullock and his family have been some of our best friends,” he said.
Ray’s favorite dishes are barbecue, country style steak, vegetables and peach cobbler.
But the food doesn’t magically prepare itself, and Tommy is quick to point out that he has a dedicated, hard-working team that includes his three children – Angela, Ty and Laura – his wife, Judy, and other loyal employees who have been with him for many years, including son-in-law Mark Bennett and Ty’s wife, Linda.
Judy Bullock loves to tell the story of how she met her future husband. She used to eat at the old restaurant after church when she was a young child. One day, when she was 13, 16-year-old Tommy Bullock waited on their table.
Judy turned to her mother and said: “I’m going to marry him someday.”
Years later, she did.
“I was dating somebody else, but I broke up with him just to go out on a first date with Tommy.”
They married in 1960.
Judy, who works as a cashier at the restaurant, said she’s “proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep the doors open for 60 years. We’ve had ups and downs, and trials and tribulations. But it’s worth it, and it’s afforded us a good life.”
One bump in the road happened several years ago, when some customers complained of becoming sick after eating the restaurant’s food. But a Durham Health Department inspection never found the restaurant at fault, and many people in the community rallied behind Bullock’s, including chefs from all over the city who ate there as a show of support.
Tommy continues to put in at least 12 hours a day at the restaurant, doing a little of everything – baking, filling plates, washing dishes, catering and even doing repairs.
But what keeps him going is one thing – love.
He loves his family, friends and customers, and he loves the restaurant his parents started, and whose framed portraits hang prominently on a wall as a constant reminder of who made it possible.
“I care about every customer who walks through that door, and I try to let them know that,” Tommy said with tears in his eyes.
“There’s an old saying: You put your heart into what you love, and give it your best.
“This is not just a job,” he said. “It’s my life.”
There are few places in Durham that can be enjoyed and experienced by multiple generations; places that provide some continuity between the Durham of the mid-20th century and the Durham of today, despite the myriad changes - good and bad - that have occurred in-between. Bullock's is one of those very few places.
Submitted by Jessica T. (not verified) on Fri, 4/10/2009 - 1:57pm
When Bullocks was on 70, back in 1971, Mom and I used to go there for supper on Wednesday nights, after swim work-outs at Duke.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 4/10/2009 - 3:54pm
Now, I don't like to open this can of worms, but anyone who knows about Barbecue knows that once they stopped cookin' that hog over a wood fired pit, it stopped being barbecue worth eating. Allen and Son is the only place in the area that still cooks barbecue the old fashioned way. I'm a little surprised that you, as someone interested in history, didn't mention that. You're not from around here are you :)
Submitted by Michael Bacon (not verified) on Fri, 4/10/2009 - 9:47pm
Anyone who knows about barbecue should know that there is one and only one way to cook barbecue and that way shall never change until the end of time. That is, unless you move a couple miles over, and then it's a slightly different one and only one way to cook barbecue that shall never change until the end of time.
Allen and Son still has the best barbecue in shufflin' distance, but anyone who says Bullocks isn't worth eating, well, it's Easter Sunday. I best be kind.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 4/10/2009 - 10:50pm
Coming to Duke from California next weekend for my reunion. Was already on my list of "to-do's" but thanks for the historical write-up Gary!
Submitted by Gary (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 1:56am
Now, I'll spar all day on historic buildings, but you aren't going to draw me into a fight over what constitutes good barbeque.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 4:33am
I've long told my spouse that even North Carolinians who can calmly differ on politics, religion, and basketball will come to blows over BBQ. (I did have to teach him that it is always a noun and refers to pig. Poor misguided soul spent too much time in Texas and thought it could be a verb and include other meats.)
I'll just say that, IMHO, the last few times I ate at Bullock's (in the 80s) it just wasn't the same, and that made me very sad.
Great post, though, Gary. My folks bought que from them from the early 50s. We were practically teethed on their hushpuppies. Definitely a piece of Durham food history.
Submitted by Fritz (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 12:15pm
Allen and Sons is way overrated and way overpriced.
You might also bit into some charred bits of Q when munch on it which I did not find all that pleasant
Bullocks might have changed but there is still a line out the door
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 12:40pm
I can't help but find this (architecture & food) so incredibly similar. Is it all aesthetics? Some find the old buildings tired, dirty, overly nostalgic. Some don't like the authentic bits of real char that comes from hand stoked hard wood fires. To each his own? Or, is there some truth in the slow, organic, grow your own food movement. Seriously, Gary, look a little deeper. Why did Bullocks, and almost all others, switch away from wood fired BBQ pits? Ease, convience, maintenance. Some of the reasons why people want to knock down and build new? Did BBQ resturaunt owners want to serve more people? make more money? have a more consistent product? Do modern materials allow cheaper construction, a more consistent product? I'm glad Bullocks has been locally owned and operated for so many years, but is it a model to promote?
Submitted by Gary (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 1:21pm
Honestly, I don't know enough about it to make the "deeper" assessment you refer to. So it may be very valid, but I'm not a bbq expert. Superficially, Bullock's appears to provide a similar experience now to what it provided ~30 years ago, and maybe that's not true. It may or may not be authentic, or a model restaurant - I don't know. But I do know that, to Jessica T's comment above, there are very few multigenerational restaurants in Durham, and Bullock's is definitely one of them. Did the Little Acorn, the Palms, Amos and Andy, King's, AB Morris, Parker's, etc., die because of changes in patience and product, or because they were located in old buildings where their customer base wouldn't go anymore after they fled to North Durham? I tend to think the latter, because I know a lot more about buildings, landscape, and historical movement of demographic groups than I do about bbq. Bullock's, and those old buildings, are the meager threads that tie us to what Durham was 50+ years ago - that's my only point. We have a wave of restaurants from the 1980s onward that are still going strong, but so very few that actually cross our very own C-T extinction event, the 1960s.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 1:49pm
I'd suggest that anyone interested in learning more about traditional NC BBQ head on out to Hillsborough's Hog Day on June 19,20, and 21.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 4/11/2009 - 5:14pm
I don't think there is any one reason for why there aren't more older restaurants (in most cities, not just in Durham.) It's an extremely demanding business, one that someone who grew up in it often doesn't want any part of after watching their parents work so hard -- there are easier ways to make more money. There's shifting of population bases with the discretionary income to the ‘burbs. There's that it's hard to compete against the chains with their bigger marketing/ad budgets, volume, better buying power, etc. Eating out used to be a special event; now it’s almost a daily thing. You'd think that would translate to more profits for the restaurants, but not when the expectation becomes “Where can we eat the most food for the least money?” The likes of Cracker Barrel and Golden Corral have the volume and buying power to serve a lot of food cheap; mom and pop don't. And places like Applebee's depend on their bar to make the profit margins work.
But I think when you look at why some independents do survive for many years, you have to consider the human element. Bullocks may not have "the" best BBQ anymore, but the Bullocks have always been gracious hosts who were hands-on with their business. They understood that people respond positively to sincere hospitality and a strong work ethic. They, and their staff, made it a point to recognize their customers, call them by name, make them fell welcome. It’s not always about only the food.
Submitted by Steve (not verified) on Mon, 4/13/2009 - 12:39am
I always thought the used car place at the intersection where Neal Road (?) splits off of 70/Hillsborough Road (next to the RR trestle) was the original Bullock's?
And, several years ago, UNC folklore students (including myself) did several "studies" (yes, it did include eating lots of bbq!) on families/individuals creating "neo BBQ," comparing it to old school (i.e. wood-cooked) BBQ. Some pretty interesting stuff...
Not to feed (no pun intended) the debate, but Allen and Sons (the north of Chapel Hill location) does have the very best (and authentic, according to historic NC BBQ "standards") BBQ in this immediate area that has been operating for awhile... even if it is a bit pricier compared to other wood-cooking-BBQ-ers further west and east. Gas and electric just don't cut it compared to hickory! There are a few small-timers, though, that are doing it right. They're just tough to find and usually don't sell what they create commercially.
Even if Bullocks gave up on their BBQ many years ago, their food and service is darn good...
Submitted by Tar Heelz (not verified) on Mon, 4/13/2009 - 1:42pm
Allen & Sons, Bullocks, Dillards, &, heck, the Q Shack all turn out darn good pig.
Each of the four have their pluses and minuses. It's purely personal preference. For me, Allen & Sons will move higher up my list the day they increase their focus on quality control. A man can only tolerate so many grizzly bits in his que.
On an unrelated note, Gary, how about noting the names of current businesses on historic sites? I noticed you referenced, "now the site of a Mitsubishi dealership." Actually that is Morgan Mitsubishi (a family owned business?). I see that in your historical perspectives you almost always note the actual business name of former occupants of a building -- rarely current ones unless they are somehow arbitrarily worthy of praise.
Submitted by Gary (not verified) on Mon, 4/13/2009 - 1:47pm
Good point, Tar Heelz - no agenda there, just focused more on the historic stuff, but I should be specific about what is there now for 'future history'. I've updated the post.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 4/13/2009 - 3:00pm
For the record, Bullock's doesn't take criticism very well -- they threatened legal action (for libel) against one reviewer for posting a negative review. See details--including the threatening letter from Bullock's lawyer here: http://hkentcraig.com/BBQ1.html
i don't think i'll eat there again.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 7/24/2009 - 6:50pm
Chopped Q, a breast and a bowl of brisket plus baked beans for $8.45 out the door with a full meal worth of leftovers? I've been eating there since 1980, and it's still the same as ever...Now if only Parker's on the other side of town was still in business....
Submitted by patskywriter (not verified) on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 6:08pm
Adding to what Tar Heelz said about referencing current sites, the parking lot that was the original site of Bullock's BBQ belongs to my church, Russell Memorial CME Church (official address: 703 S Alston Ave).
Submitted by William Cassada (not verified) on Thu, 3/28/2013 - 12:45pm
I was more than pleased to run across your excellent article which so accurately documents the history of what I consider a virtual legend in Durham. Raised in southern Virginia, my family moved to Durham when I was 10 years old and we lived there for a couple of years, near the intersection of Guess Rd & Cammie St. I dearly remember eating at the old Bullock's on Hillsborough Rd, probably somewhere in the 1955-57 era, and it was there I literally fell in love with their Brunswick Stew. Last time I was in Durham (I live in SW Florida now) I drove out to see where we used to live on Cammie St. and later, around the corner on Guess Rd. Alas, all that is there now is vacant land. Time marches on I suppose, and the older I get the more of my old haunts seem to disappear. Nonetheless, the original Bullock's Bar-B-Que restaurant on Hillsborough Rd remains a vivid and wonderful memory. I believe it was not simply the restaurant or the food itself that was so good, it was that it was one of those places that used to frequent America in every state - a family-owned and run business, that just got started from grassroots, and the people that ran it were good folk and well-versed in tarheel hospitality. What wonderful memories...thank you for posting this information, and for the greater work of preserving those memories of bygone eras. Durham still remains one of my favorite places to visit, especially Bullocks.
Submitted by jim (not verified) on Sat, 5/17/2014 - 3:04pm
Whatever you like is what you like. I know BBQ and I know what I like. I ate a lot of BBQ from Bullock's, starting at the old Hillsborough Rd. location, and I will just say about Bullock's, it ain't what it once was.
Submitted by Blair (not verified) on Fri, 7/18/2014 - 4:21am
I was told about a year ago that Durham won't let open fire pit cooking. Could be wrong.
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