Hap’s changing owners: After 30 years, Greg Culp spends last day at the grill

Published 12:05 am Sunday, January 1, 2017

SALISBURY — With the new year, Hap’s Grill will be different. But the same.

Owner Greg Culp has sold the popular food stand at 116 1/2 N. Main St. to his friend and longtime right-hand man, Jamie Gobbel.

Culp’s last day out front, putting the finishing touches on hamburgers and hot dogs, came Saturday. He bid heartfelt goodbyes to customers who already knew, but Culp often didn’t even reveal it was his last day.

“I’ve been here 30 years,” said Culp, who owned Hap’s Grill for the past 22 of those years. “I’m getting kind of burned out.”

Culp, 44, now plans to devote all of his attention to his scuba diving shop, based in Granite Quarry. A longtime instructor, he also will be spending a lot of time planning and leading scuba trips to Key West and the Caribbean.

Selling Hap’s Grill was easier for Culp because he knew the business was going to Gobbel.

“Jamie’s been the magic the whole time,” Culp said of all the behind-the-Greg work Gobbel has done for the past 11-and-a-half years.

“Someone who comes in here and closes his eyes won’t know the difference.”

Gobbel’s new man in the back, doing a lot of the cooking, cutting of onions and making the chili will be Seth Grigg. The woman on the counter taking orders, making change, wrapping the hot dogs and hamburgers and putting them in bags will continue to be Breanna Leonard.

On Saturdays, Crystal Kirkman mans the counter spot as she has for the past 28 years.

Gobbel and Culp have known each other since they were infants, and they are actually third cousins, though they consider themselves more friends than relatives.

They graduated North Rowan High School together, and Gobbel was the first person Culp called in 2005 when he needed someone to replace his longtime prep man Barry Koontz.

Gobbel knows the business inside and out and promises the quality of the hot dogs, hamburgers, onion-infused chili and service won’t change. He and and Culp worked together like a well-tuned symphony orchestra.

“You have to make a mental map,” said Gobbel, who confesses he is obsessive. “You have to be 15 steps ahead. … I like to do things right.”

Culp was 14 when he joined the business’ original owner, Hap Alexander, and it was only about a week after Alexander opened in 1986. Over the next eight years, Culp learned everything about running the food stand, and he was the natural person to buy Hap’s when Alexander decided to sell and move to the beach.

“I was scared to death when Hap quit,” Culp recalled. “But the business kept going.”

It demonstrated to him that success happens when you do what you know and do it the best way possible, he said. Alexander visited the food stand Saturday for Culp’s last day.

Culp was only 22 when he bought Hap’s Grill in January 1995. Through the years, Culp said, he fielded offers from people who wanted to buy the business, but “it’s never been the right person.”

“It’s hard, what we do,” Culp said. “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

Alexander, who now lives in the mountains, actually provided the “inspiration” for his finally selling Hap’s Grill, Culp said.

Alexander told Culp he could 1) stay at the food stand until he died; 2) work toward an exit strategy; or 3) do the thing he would feel best about, and sell it to Gobbel.

“I want to see the place succeed,” Culp said. “Hap said Jamie deserves the place more than anyone.”

How in tune is Gobbel with the way things operate?

With his back turned to the grill, he can tell when burgers are done, just by the way they sound. Or he can look at the grill and tell how far along the burgers are by the amount of steam coming off the top.

Culp and Gobbel started talking about Jamie’s buying the business about six months ago. Gobbel has been training Grigg for the important prep work. Culp said there have been days in recent months, during the transition, when he would come in late, leave early or not work at all.

Gobbel and Culp didn’t tell a lot of people about the sale, especially until all the papers were signed in the week before Christmas. Mostly relatives, longtime customers and attorneys who helped with the deal were still the only people who knew.

“I’ve got so many, many, many good customers and friends,” Culp said, acknowledging Saturday was bittersweet but promising he would still be seeing a lot of people because of how public a person he is.

The scuba shop will start being open full-time in mid February. Culp said he also has told Gobbel to call him sometimes when he needs a break from the grill, and he will fill in.

“I never had anybody I could call,” Culp said.

Gobbel, 45, lives in Spencer and is the son of Spencer Mayor Jim Gobbel. He is married to Paula; has two sons, Drew and Alex; and two stepdaughters, Lauren Jordan and Megan Wilder.

Culp said Hap’s Grill has worked because of its proximity to the courthouse, its limited menu and how it has always been owner-operated. People love to see the guy who owns the place also working his butt off, Culp said, and they’ll continue to see that with Gobbel.

“It’s the end of Greg,” Culp said. “It’s not the end of Hap’s.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com