A Counter Protest from History and the Rebirth of a Fabled Rock Hill Restaurant
One could make much of the timing of Chef Rob Masone’s next big food venture, seeing that it just happens to intersect with a moment that’s brought us both a pandemic and a major conversation about the meaning and breadth of race and racism in the United States.
The moment is not lost on Masone, even if he didn’t intend for the project to be quite this meaningful. When he set out in earnest last year to refurbish and reopen what used to be McCrory’s restaurant, he mostly just wanted to reopen the doors to a Rock Hill landmark that’s been gathering dust for a while now.
Being a Rock Hill native, he knew the history of the place, of course. When David Williamson came in and put his hands on the long, pink laminate lunch counter, Masone saw the connection with that history at its most tangible.
The counter, objectively un-lovely though it might be, would stay and become the focal point to Kounter – Masone’s soon-to-open restaurant on Main Street that will serve equal helpings of twisted American cuisine and history. Kounter is on course to open maybe late this month or in October, and once it opens, expect to learn a little something if you ever eat there.
Generally, any longtime Rock Hill resident knows the story of the Friendship Nine – the nonet of young African-American protesters who sat at this counter for lunch on Jan. 31, 1961, and were jailed for a month for doing so. The sit-down followed nearly a year of picket lines by (and arrests of) Black protesters wanting to integrate into everyday American life.
David Williamson, whose hands on the counter drove home the living connection with the Civil Rights Era for Masone, was one of the Friendship Nine. Today, six members remain; Williamson still lives in Rock Hill.
Masone has invited Williamson and his family, as well as the remaining members of the Friendship Nine, to dine at Kounter before it opens to the public. These men were denied service here in 1961, Masone says, so it’s only fitting that they get served before anyone else.
While Williamson jokes that the restaurant might not have any food left, given the size of his family, he also admits that he’s still a little surprised that people put so much weight on what he did 59-and-a-half years ago.
“I didn’t do nothing special,” he says. “I just did what I thought was right.”
Ah, but doing the right thing is what makes it special, is it not? It’s easy to do the right thing when you’re rewarded for it, but Wiliamson and his friends did what they saw as right at a time when trying to do it could land a Black man in the hospital (which happened to friends of his) or land him in jail (which happened to him and to friends of his).
Masone is aware that it’s too easy to forget how important these moments of history really are, which is why he has no intention of letting the Friendship Nine be forgotten in his restaurant. Plaques, write-ups, and photos will line the walls; that original pink counter will be preserved and protected; the very seats Williamson and some of his friends were snatched from by policemen have engraved plates on them and will be bolted to the floor where they were back in the day.
“We want to educate people about what happened here,” Masone says.
Masone actually goes by Chef Rob in his professional life. And it’s been a pretty unusual professional life.
“In 2011, I was fortunate enough to represent the United States in a culinary duel in Afghanistan,” he says. And if you’ve never heard anyone else say that sentence, that’s because no one else ever has; at least not in connection with ‘59 Minutes’ – the ‘Iron Chef’ of Afghanistan.
He tied the Afghan winner, by the way.
And Masone got the gig in part through connections made by cooking for soldiers at Fort Bragg. He was never in the military himself, but the Department of the Army enjoyed his cooking enough to hook him up a few times with some willing diners. He was invited by an Afghani telecommunications billionaire to be on the show there.
Being in Afghanistan proved the jumpstart Masone needed to really take his career where he wanted it to go. A few years later, he started Kreate, a catering company in Charlotte. He borrowed the K for Kounter and has put “hundreds of thousands” of dollars into the latter.
Does it scare him to be this deep into a new restaurant venture now that a pandemic has thrown a bag of sand into the world’s economic engine?
“Of course it worries me,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anybody out there that’s not worried about what’s going on in the world, but … failure’s not an option for us.”
Being relentlessly optimistic helps.
“The world will get back to normal,” he says. “People do want to get out and do things, and we offer an experience that you just can’t get other places.”
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan. Follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio or on Facebook.