The McDuffies’ Pender County restaurant was a life-saver after the storm. Literally. Today, they want to sustain their town in more ways than one.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Myra McDuffie’s Pender County barbecue restaurant, MeMa’s Chick’n’ & Ribs, was the only place in town to get food.
“Food Lion was closed, everything was closed,” McDuffie remembers. “We were only able to stay open because our freezers were reach-in so we already had the generators. The community came together: they brought us fuel, and we fed everyone.”
McDuffie’s restaurant in Burgaw — population about 4,000 — opened in 2017, a year before the storm made landfall near Wrightsville Beach in September 2018. Florence didn’t pack the strongest winds. But its historic rainfall devastated eastern North Carolina towns, leaving many underwater.
McDuffie remembers driving around Burgaw with her husband James to survey the damage, paying particular attention to a vacant tract across from the local Walmart. It was more elevated, so it wasn’t affected by the flooding.
The McDuffies had an idea to not just survive the storm, but thrive afterward.
They bought the land and they’re building not just a permanent home for their restaurant, but The Creek at Burgaw, a multi-use development that, according to its website, aims to boost businesses owned by people of color, women, and veterans. For the McDuffies, Black business owners themselves, it’s not just professional, it’s personal.
In a town where about a third of the population is Black, The Creek will be the first Black-owned development of its kind, they say.
From Brooklyn to Burgaw
McDuffie was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but raised in Mississippi. She returned to Brooklyn for college and began a career in healthcare as a respiratory therapist. But she wanted a change.
“I walked out on faith and went to North Carolina,” McDuffie says, remembering years of sharing a cramped New York apartment with three children under the age of 10. She married her husband James, a trucker and U.S. Marine veteran in Burgaw, and continued to work in healthcare.
When James could no longer work as a trucker, due to injuries sustained during military service, Myra pushed her husband to open a restaurant. MeMa’s made sense. Locals knew James for his BBQ sauce recipe and there wasn’t anywhere within an hour’s drive to get good Southern food. They named it for James’ mother, a skilled cook.
Neither of them had ever owned, let alone worked, in a restaurant before. “I would tell people, I’m in healthcare, James is a Marine, and MeMa is just an old lady that can cook.”
They bought all of their equipment at auction, including a used outdoor smoker, lovingly named “Old Sadie” because “Sadie never lets you down.” Sometimes they slept at the restaurant. They didn’t realize how long it would take to smoke the meat.
But MeMa’s became a local favorite, not just in Burgaw but across the Cape Fear Region because of its smoked pork, family atmosphere, and its mission-oriented leadership.
‘Not Just Warm Bodies’
“Our Only Limitation is Your Imagination,” reads the slogan on the back of MeMa’s catering truck. It refers to the creativity of their catering offerings, from their famously succulent ribs to lobster steamers. It also encapsulates the McDuffies’ message.
McDuffie has made it her personal mission to change those demographics.
“Employees of MeMa’s are not just warm bodies,” she says.
McDuffie offers employees $1,000 scholarships to four-year colleges and $500 for community colleges. “They have to get ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s,’” McDuffie says. “If you get a ‘C’ I have to see your report card, and then we’ll work together to improve that grade.”
MeMa’s employees are guaranteed at least two days a week off from work. And she’s helped out employees when they’re struggling, advising them with everything from academics to homelessness, though she doesn’t like talking about the full details of her charitable work.
“They have to do a vision board.” she says. “They have to do something with personal development. We employ people so they can see their life changing.”
Joy Moran has been working at MeMa’s for the past eighteen months. “Mrs. Myra helped to guide and advise me through becoming a first time homeowner,” she told Cardinal & Pine.. “She’s continually encouraging us to stay the course and improve ourselves daily.”
“Being a part of MeMa’s has changed my outlook on small town USA,” Moran adds.
The McDuffies own the land where they plan to build The Creek. They crowdfunded $200,000 and found investors to back the $1.8 million project. The cost jumped to about $5.5 million because of post-pandemic inflation, so these days they’re looking for new investors.
Once their lease is up in June 2023, the McDuffies plan to set up a temporary restaurant and dining area at the front of the property and let their dream rise behind them.