Kinston is the heart of Lenoir County in eastern North Carolina. Longtime residents say it was heart-breaking to see their hometown fall apart as traditional industries like textiles and tobacco disappeared. But during the past decade a new, more diverse economic landscape has developed.
One person who is getting a lot of credit for helping to transform her hometown of Kinston is Chef Vivian Howard.
Nothing brings Kinston residents together like the annual BBQ Festival on the Neuse.
“Anyone at the BBQ Festival who’s had some BBQ, make some noise and scream one time!” yelled an announcer at the festival.
This BBQ festival has gotten bigger and bigger in recent years. It seems to have grown right along with the opening of a downtown Kinston restaurant called “Chef & the Farmer.”
The chef is Vivian Howard. Her face was all over highway billboards this year promoting the festival. You can’t miss her on the area tourism authority website. And her television show on PBS, “A Chef’s Life,” has national appeal.
“We were able to advertise that Vivian would be here, and you saw the lines, it was crazy!" laughed Tammy Kelly.
Tammy Kelly is the Cooperative Extension Director for Lenoir County. She says Howard’s “Chef & the Farmer” restaurant is drawing visitors from all over the country.
“I can go into town anytime now and see people from Michigan, or Georgia, or South Carolina or anywhere looking for the restaurant," said Kelly. "I mean it’s crazy. It really is crazy, that people are coming from everywhere!”
Kelly isn’t the only person in town amazed at Kinston’s economic revitalization. Jan Parson is the Director of "Visit Kinston" and tracks visitors to this city of 22,000 residents.
Parson says in the past two years, people have been spending a lot more time on their website and they’re specifically checking out where to stay and where to dine
“And the interesting thing is dining was way down in their page views. It’s the number one page view now," said Parson.
Parson says website page views are up 130 percent.
“I think we can definitely say that the show “A Chef’s Life” has really changed that," said Parson.
“A Chef’s Life,” featuring Vivian Howard, is preparing for season three on PBS.
On this day, Howard is having a restful moment in the backyard of her newest downtown space. She and producer-director Cynthia Hill, also a Lenoir County native, and the rest of the crew, spent the earlier part of the day taping a segment for “A Chef’s Life” at the BBQ festival. Howard judged the side dishes.
“This is easier than what I normally do," said Howard. "‘Cause I’m just smiling and talking to people and judging other people’s food rather than making my own.”
Howard says it’s hard to believe she and husband Ben Knight are successful, because of the day to day stress they endure now running two downtown restaurants. Not to mention the TV show and raising four-year-old twins. They left New York, returned home to Deep Run, near Kinston, and opened “Chef & the Farmer” in 2006.
“The big picture is that 10 years ago when we opened the restaurant Kinston was the arm pit of North Carolina and now I think a lot of people in the state see it as a food and beverage dining destination," said Howard. "And I think we’ve played a big role in that. And that, from the outside looks like success.”
People drive hundreds of miles to eat Howard’s cooking and that’s created a national buzz and has helped in the transformation of downtown Kinston.
But Howard isn’t the only person that’s come back home. Adrian King was away for 40 years.
“I saw people all the time say, we can’t believe you moved back to Kinston, can’t believe you moved back to Kinston after living in Atlanta and Washington. And it was really kind of depressing," said King.
After retiring from the Coca Cola Company, King was asked to lead the Pride of Kinston. Its mission is downtown revitalization through historic preservation. And King says it’s working, starting with that old print shop at the corner of Heritage and Gordon Streets that’s now Chef & the Farmer.
“Since that happened, we’ve had over 40 events, new businesses, new construction, new properties downtown since 2004," said King. "And that parking lot and that restaurant prompted a whole bunch of people thinking I can do something and make some money in downtown Kinston. That’s what’s happened.”
And after Chef & the Farmer opened, Mother Earth Brewing opened across the street, taking up almost a whole city block!
Stephen Hill owns Mother Earth which sits in what he once called the ugliest building in Kinston.
“I just have a love for old buildings really. And I like saving them and making them look better and bringing them back to their former glory," said Hill.
Now, Hill is loving on a new historic building in downtown Kinston: The old Farmers & Merchants Bank Building at Gordon and Queen Streets.
Hill has turned it into a boutique hotel called The O’Neil. Eye-catching, life-size portraits of his three adult daughters hang on the wall.
Hill says Kinston used to be known for its “Magic Mile” on Queen Street. People would come from all over eastern North Carolina to buy everything from clothes to cars. Hill says Kinston could be a magnet once again.
“I see Kinston as an entertainment destination. You know, somewhere people come, they can live, work and play. But not only that, they can eat, drink and be merry," said Hill. "So booze, music and food.”
And Kinston is well on its way to re-writing its history , as long as there are BBQ festivals.
“Alright, hush puppies! My favorite part of the pig pickin!” exclaimed Vivian Howard, as she announced the winners of the BBQ "sides" competition.
And natives like Vivian Howard, willing to come home and take a chance, could be a good start.
“First Place goes to John Hoffman, and John, we used to work together! Great work! He learned everything he knows from me!" said Howard, laughing with the crowd.