The Triad, and Winston-Salem in particular, is rife with an abundance of restaurants. This was not always the case, and a cherished matriarch of the local restaurant scene is Mary Haglund.
She began her illustrious chapter as a restaurateur in 2000 with Mary’s of Course on Brookstown Avenue in downtown Winston-Salem. She moved her booming business to Trade Street in 2010 and launched Mary’s Gourmet Diner. Mary is embedded as a prominent pioneer in the culinary fabric of Winston-Salem.
Tell us about your early life in the kitchen. Where did the culinary seeds germinate?
I grew up in the kitchens of my grandmothers on both sides of my family. I was raised in Indiana about 30 miles southeast of Chicago. My grandmothers were the queens of solid mid-western comfort food.
Tell us about your first professional foray into hospitality.
I was 18 and went to a small college in Indiana. I worked the drive thru window at Penguin Point in Warsaw, Indiana. It was the home of the best pork tenderloin sandwich. I still think about that pork tenderloin to this day.
My first taste of the south was after I got married in 1973 and my husband, who was a Marine, had us stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina. I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, it was utter culture shock. We then got the opportunity to move back to Indiana. I hated it, but I went to work at Denny’s. It had the reputation of being the busiest Denny’s in the United States. I was a server for the 2nd and even 3rd shifts. I waited on tables as it was good money and allowed me the scheduling flexibility as a young mother.
I later transitioned to fine dining and learned so much about great food and wine. It elevated my game and gave me a deeper understanding and love for the industry.
What made you believe you could have a restaurant of your own?
It was a very tough journey for me as a young adult. When I was 33, I quit abusing drugs and alcohol to mask pain and fear. I asked myself how I was going to make this dream of a restaurant work. My parents never put limitations on me just because I was female. I had the confidence of the ignorant.
This friend who had a coffee shop where my eventual restaurant was to be, told me she would sell me her business for pennies on the dollar. She needed the money for medical expenses.
It was a tiny space and in fact there was no room even for an electric dishwasher, but with financial help from my parents who had some land to put up as collateral. Can you believe I was able to open a restaurant for under $100,000!
What were the early days like for Mary’s of Course?
Candide Jones wrote a glowing newspaper review in 2000. We were going along so well and then 9/11 happened. Tourism plummeted, and the economy tanked. I didn’t take a paycheck for 2.5 years! My health suffered. And frankly, I knew how to host and cook for people, but I was not a businessperson. I owed payroll back taxes. There were occasions where “Mr. IRS” would come knocking and tell me I had until 5pm to give them $1000 or risk being shuttered.
Eventually, the economy regained strength, I got my financial house in order, and we got rather famous for what we were doing to feed this town. We were so busy.
There were not a lot of women who owned restaurants in the Triad at the time. I was a housewife from Indiana, and the good ol’ boy network thought “Who does this lady think she is?” Vendors and suppliers didn’t treat me with a great deal of respect at the time. I had to work twice as hard to get half as far.
When did you know it was time to retire from the restaurant business?
I did not have the stomach for the stress any longer, especially when we were going into Covid. Yes, we were still crowded even in 2020 (20 years after opening the original Mary’s of Course). But my food wasn’t to-go food. Covid would water down the intended communal spirit of my concept.
Talk about how you have transitioned into teaching cooking classes.
Cooking is so ingrained in me. My happy place is my kitchen. I adore being a part of the female-owned community at Southern Home and Kitchen at Thruway. I really love being with the people who attend the classes.
Who else in this town should be celebrated for their pioneering status?
Millicent Greason. She was a cultural pioneer long before any of us. She is so under-celebrated and under-appreciated. When I got my restaurant together many years later, I made sure to feature local art there. Millicent is such an important part of the art scene that blossomed here at the turn of the century.
I am a different person because of these artists. In fact, I am in the process of producing a documentary called ‘How to Feed an Artist.’ We will be doing a huge GoFundMe to raise even more money for this project. The arts enrich lives and save lives.
When people utter your name, what do you hope they say?
I hope they say that I loved my city, the people, that I am so grateful every single day of my life. I hope people say that I treated everyone like family. My life has been remarkable because of the people and connections I have made. My mission has always been that I wanted to look at a crowd in my dining room and see the celebrated diversity of my customer base.