Crook's Corner announced Wednesday that it will be switching owners, but longtime customers have no need to fear.
“I’ve had it for 36 and a half years, and I am ready to do something else,” said Gene Hamer, owner of Crook’s.
Hamer bought Crook’s in 1982 with chef Bill Neal. At the time, Hamer was unsatisfied with graduate school, so he said purchasing the restaurant felt right. Hamer is excited about a new era for Crook’s and is looking forward to seeing it evolve. He picked the new owners because it was a good offer that will also retain the current employees.
Hamer is selling Crook’s to a small group called Tempus Fugit — Latin for time flies. The group is made up of Gary Crunkleton, owner of The Crunkleton bar, Shannon Healy, owner of Alley Twenty Six and a silent partner. Both Crunkleton and Healy have close ties to the restaurant and care about its preservation. Crunkleton had his first date with his wife at Crook’s, as well as anniversaries and their wedding brunch.
Healy was the general manager of Crook’s for 12 years, until 2012 and has always dreamed of owning the restaurant. When Hamer called Crunkleton about buying Crook’s, he just couldn't say no. Crunkleton purchased the land and the building to prevent someone else from buying it, tearing it down or otherwise altering the restaurant and its surroundings. When Crunkleton realized how big of a deal Crook’s was, he called in Healy to help with the books.
“It’s not going to be like your grandpa’s Crook’s Corner, it’s going to be more, hopefully, vivacious and fun,” Crunkleton said.
He recognizes that Crook’s is an important asset for the food community throughout the South, and many of Crook’s customers are older. He hopes to make Crook’s a more vibrant place that a younger crowd can appreciate and enjoy, while still maintaining their iconic, award-winning reputation. Physical changes will include opening up the space, showing more windows and making the patio available for year-round dining.
“Crook’s Corner is a restaurant that is honestly about its place and people,” Healy said.
Healy said nothing about Crook’s has ever been static. The menu is different every day, the décor changes monthly and people come and go. This will still be true in the next era of Crook’s.
Justin Burdett is taking over the role of head chef from icon Bill Smith, who has run the kitchen at Crook’s for the last 25 years. Burdett said when Crunkleton approached him about the job, he knew it was something he could not pass up. He is excited to be part of an institution that has been around for so long and work with a tight-knit staff. He plans to keep the dishes that have been popular for the past 36 years but change others to add his own style.
His first breakthrough job was at Top Chef Judge Hugh Acheson’s restaurant, 5&10, in Athens, Georgia. Acheson said he knew Burdett wanted to learn and had talent, so he decided to give him a shot.
In 2009, Burdett was on the opening team of Miller Union in Atlanta under Steven Satterfield and won “Chopped” a year later. He also served as executive chef at Ruka’s Table and The Admiral in Asheville.
“Justin is very creative but also has reverence for Southern tradition, so he walks the line of nodding to the past while keeping things fresh and unique in the present,” Satterfield said.
Smith and Hamer are both confident in Crook’s future. Smith, who will help in the transition phase after a trip, recognizes that things will grow under Burdett just as they did when he took over. Crook’s Corner is a staple in Chapel Hill, and the community is proud of what it has accomplished.
“I will miss the staff and the regulars that come in, but I’m not going far, so I’ll still see all these folks,” Hamer said.