Famous Mama Dip's Kitchen changes course, prepares to sell popular Chapel Hill location
For almost 50 years, you could count on something Southern and savory to eat from Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill. The late Mildred “Mama Dip” Council described herself in a book as born colored, growing up Negro, becoming a Black adult and then, an American. And hungry folks from all backgrounds loved her food.
But Mama Dip’s food dynasty is about to undergo some big changes. The restaurant and land around it are up for sale — the asking price is $3.6 million.
Mama Dip has eight children. The baby of the bunch is Spring Council. At 66 years old, she has her mother’s kind demeanor and her height — Spring is 6’2. I spoke with Spring to get some insight on the Big Sale and the future of Mama Dip‘s Kitchen.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Leoneda Inge: “So you’re the baby. You’re Mama Dip’s baby. That means it is understandable that you are taking care of business right now.”
Spring Council: “Yes, taking care of business because I always hung out with my mom. She always called me to go with her, like when she did the UNC-TV shows. I traveled with her on cookbook tours. So she has always asked for me to come along with her.”
Inge: “And it seems you have always sat close to her as well, when she was running her business.”
Council: “Yes. When she first opened, Dip’s Country Kitchen, when it first started, it was just the two of us.”
Inge: “Wow! So everybody else was out of high school, gone, married with their own kids. And you were the one still at home.”
Council: “Yeah, with Mom. Actually, she was at Bill’s Bar-B-Q with my dad and she decided to leave the business and leave him. Then she went and opened Dip’s Country Kitchen. I was still working for my dad. Once I was at work and thought about my mom down the street by herself — she used to drop me off at Bill’s — the next day I went down and sat with her.”
Inge: “I could only assume, that you probably know the restaurant and food business better than almost anybody, definitely in the Triangle. I think of the different places that have come and gone over the years. But I think you have got a lot of good training, Spring.”
Council: “Yes, I have. I pretty much worked in every aspect of the restaurant business. From washing dishes, to bookkeeping, doing all of our social media, building our website. I’ve always read a lot of business books. I like to read and did that all the time. And being close to my mom, learning how to cook under her wings. So, yes.”
Inge: “I have to ask you, what’s your favorite thing to cook that your mom taught you?”
Council: “What I like to cook is braised beef short ribs. That’s one of the things, when I was a kid, I used to always beg her to make it when the holiday came around. I said, ‘Mama, please, please make this.’ And she would. So if I were to go back home, I’ll make braised beef short ribs. We don’t sell those in the restaurant, but we have sold them. I really like that a lot. At the restaurant, I would have to say the chicken and dumplings.”
Inge: “Yeah! I have been in the kitchen when they were pulling the chicken to make the chicken and dumplings. Are you surprised by all the phone calls, and the messages and the emails after word got out that Mama Dip’s Kitchen — I guess you’re selling that land. It just won’t be what we remember."
Council: “Right, yes. I was expecting all the phone calls. I know that people was going to be surprised since we have, you know, kept things going since her passing, which was in 2018. And we had the idea to keep it going. We got through the pandemic, really good. Things are back to normal. But then we started thinking about the shortages of staffing and other issues."
Inge: “I thought about that because one thing I remember knowing is that generations of family always worked at that restaurant. But I also know that across the country the shortage in workers is crucial. Many places have closed down because of that. And I thought, well, maybe that’s not a problem at Dip’s.”
Council: “There was a problem. It’s a big problem. And the thing about it, we know so much about the restaurant business. Mama had us cross-trained so we could fill-in any position. But we’re at retirement age now. And then a lot of times, that next generation, they decide they can do something else and don’t necessarily want to be in the restaurant business. It’s really hard work.”
Inge: “Maybe you can tell me more about the impetus to sell that land. I’m not crazy, I know that’s downtown Chapel Hill and I’ve seen Chapel Hill grow up around the restaurant in the past few years. What really kicked in and made you list that property?”
Council: “Well, it was a family decision. We all had a vote and the majority rules and that is what that was about. And for me, I voted ‘no,’ but then in the process of getting over that, the ‘yes’ vote, I had to have a change of mindset and say, where do we go from here.”
Inge: “So who got a vote? The eight siblings?”
Council: “Well, it’s eight siblings and two grandkids.”
Inge: “Wow. I’m not going to ask you the breakdown of the vote!”
Council: “Ok! Thank you.”
Inge: “So now, [what] are your plans? Have you been thinking about what you want the Mama Dip’s name and franchise to be from now on?”
Council: “We’re looking at going to ‘fast casual.’ My grandfather’s restaurant and the restaurant my parents took over, Bill’s Bar-B-Q, that was a ‘fast casual’ restaurant. So we do have experience in that. And looking at the ‘fast casual,’ sort of reduce the amount of staff you’re going to need. And then it reduces our menu to the most popular items so that we can easily train people to prepare the food. And we can step back.”
Inge: “And step back a little. I was going to ask you what ‘fast casual’ is. It’s not fast food, because I know it’s nothing fast about the food you have cooked over the years. So maybe you can define ‘fast casual.”
Council: “So we’re looking at reducing our menu, keeping our same fresh food we serve at Mama Dip’s. And rather than people sitting down to place an order, they go up to the counter and order their food, wait at the table until it’s ready. There may be some items they can pick up right away and take to the table to eat or carry out.”
Inge: “So what are you going to miss about that spot in Chapel Hill, on Rosemary [Street] once it’s gone and you’re not cooking there and greeting people and serving anymore?”
Council: “Mama’s presence and the customers, greeting the customers. We worked so much, six days a week and so when people came into the restaurant, we befriended them and they befriended us. So that’s where our conversations would come from. Our customers and of course, Mama’s presence in the building.”
Inge: “You know you sound like her. Do people tell you that?
Offers for the Chapel Hill Mama Dip's Kitchen have already started coming in. Stay tuned; one day there could be a smaller, leaner Mama Dip’s Kitchen near you.