LUMBERTON — There was a time when scoring a table at Uncle George’s restaurant was difficult.
Times have changed.
For 20 years, the restaurant’s menu of sandwiches, pizza and Italian specialties drew a mix of truckers, lawmen, office workers and families. Today, diners are few and far between.
Uncle George’s co-owner Sue Vasilopoulos blames the downturn on the nearby construction of a new bridge on U.S. 301.
Vasilopoulos, who opened the Fayetteville Road restaurant with her husband George in 1993, said the decrease in traffic to her establishment has been unprecedented.
“We used to have a full house during lunch, now we only serve four to six tables,” she said. “The loss has been tremendous, people avoid this area because they don’t want to deal with the congestion.”
The eatery can accommodate up to 95 customers.
In August 2012, Devere Construction Company of Alpena, Michm. was awarded a $12.9 million contract to replace the old bridge with a diverging diamond interchange over Interstate 95. Vasilopoulos said she noticed an immediate drop in business when construction started in September 2012.
The project is currently running ahead of schedule and is expected to be completed by November, according to Chuck Miller, district engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Vasilopoulos attributes the decrease in business to a number of factors, including the widespread use of safety cones and other construction indicators near her restaurant.
“People see the cones as a deterrent,” she said. “We have customers call every other day and ask, ‘how am I going to come in to pick up my order?’”
While Vasilopoulos did not want to disclose how much revenue the restaurant has lost as a result of the project, she said that the construction forced her to let go of four employees.
Miller confirmed that his department had received complaints from Vasiloipoulos that the project was hurting her business.
“We had our traffic engineering unit in Raleigh make a site visit, and they made several recommendations that we have implemented to try to help out that situation,” he said. “We have tried to make arrangements to minimize any negative impact to the businesses in the area.”
The unit’s recommendations, which included keeping the work sites tidy and the grass trimmed, haven’t helped much, according to Vasiloipoulos.
She was recently informed that a retainer wall will be installed in front of her restaurant as construction continues, something she is concerned will make the establishment even less visible.
Vasiloipoulos doesn’t believe the situation will improve at the end of the project, which is intended to relieve congestion on the overpass.
“They’re going to put a median in the middle of the road, which will make my business and the surrounding businesses less accessible to the customers,” she said.
Despite the negative impact the construction has had on her restaurant, Vasiloipoulos says she has no intention of shutting down.
“We’re here to continue serving Robeson County,” she said.
Uncle George’s is open from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.