Berry’s Restaurant was an iconic sight in Transylvania County from 1959-1994 at the location that is presently Wendy’s. The stylish, vertical green sign greeted guests shortly after they entered the city limits and came to symbolize familiar faces and comfort foods. Berry’s was owned and operated by Berry Gaither and his wife Helen. Unusual for any commercial building, Berry’s has the distinction of being built to be Berry’s and only ever being Berry’s until it was demolished in 1994. It was also only ever owned and operated by direct members of the Gaither family. This is remarkable when it comes to building history, as most have had multiple owners and uses.
The Gaither family was part of a larger Gaither family in the area who were also in the restaurant business. Berry R. Gaither was born on July 13, 1921 to Benjamin and Betty Gaither. The family started out in Statesville, NC but eventually made their way to the mountains.
Berry and his brother Jimmy began working in the restaurant business when they both lived in Sylva, Jackson County, N.C. 1940 Census records indicate that they were living in the same household, Jimmy with his wife and children, Berry as a single man, and other boarders. Occupations for the household all seem to revolve around café employment, and Jackson County Heritage Vol. 1 indicates that they were associated with a café called “Hole-in-the-Wall”, with various spellings. The same resource states that Berry met his wife Helen Marie Cabe while they both worked at Hole-in-the-Wall. In fact, she is one of the boarders in the shared household on the 1940 Census, though that record contradictorily lists her occupation as a maid in a private home.
Although the family is on the 1940 Census taken on April 16 in Sylva, the first mention of a restaurant in Transylvania County run by a member of the Gaither family is in the April 11, 1940 issue of the Transylvania Times. Jimmy (as J.C.) is advertised as the manager for “The Grill”, presently the location of Bracken Mountain Bakery on South Broad Street. The exact timeline isn’t clear, but the whole family seems to have moved to Brevard over the next few years.
Just a few years later in 1943, Berry was drafted into the military. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a field cook from 1943-1946. After the completion of his service, he seems to have gone back to work at The Grill. On May 22, 1947 Berry took over full management of The Grill and a second location called Gaither’s Cafeteria was opened on East Main Street to be run by brother Jimmy. Two children were born to Berry and Helen during this time: one son, Noel, was born in 1953 but died about five months later of bronchitis. A second son, Rodney, was born in 1950. Berry managed The Grill until he decided to open his own restaurant, Berry’s, on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1959.
Berry’s made a point of extending their open hours from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. daily to accommodate the working hours of shift employees at Ecusta Paper Corporation. This only changed in 1978 after the death of Berry Gaither. This is just one example of how connected Berry and Helen Gaither were through their business. In addition, numerous press releases in the Transylvania Times over the years indicate that Berry’s was a regular meeting place for civic and social groups. It became part of the fabric of the community. The Gaithers leaned into this and added the “Lambeau Room” to the restaurant in 1964. A full-page ad from the time glamorizes the newly available candle-lit private dining experience. The room’s name comes from the name of the small creek running through the property.
The years rolled by and the business continued to thrive. In 1973 at the age of 23 Berry and Helen’s son Rodney joined the business officially. The restaurant celebrated its 15th anniversary with a Thanksgiving feast on November 28, 1974, perhaps a nod to their grand opening day being on Thanksgiving. Rodney married his wife Leslie in 1976 and they had two daughters, Katrina and Alexis. Sadly, Berry Gaither passed away of a heart attack on October 3, 1978.
After Berry passed, wife Helen and son Rodney continued to operate the business for another 16 years. They felt that with only the two of them, they couldn’t manage the extended hours and shifted to a more typical restaurant schedule. Over time, competition and other factors slowed business enough that they decided to close. Berry’s closed permanently in early 1994. It was sold to an investor from Waynesville, NC who determined that the building would require too much work for his plans. It was razed completely, and the current Wendy’s was built in its place.
Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Librarian Laura Sperry. Sources available upon request. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.