Longtime customers help salvage struggling restaurant

Posted April 23, 2009 7:16 p.m. EDT
Updated April 23, 2009 8:37 p.m. EDT

Call it a type of bailout – from the heart.

The owner of the Schlotzky's Deli along U.S. Highway 64 in Apex planned to close due to poor sales last year until longtime customers Jim and Joyce Willis used their life savings to save the business and its employees.

Manager Randy Ellis had come to know the couple because they visited daily and Joyce Willis ordered the Chicken Fiesta sandwich every day. So he went to them with a proposal to go in with him and buy the restaurant.

"And we said, 'Who?'" Joyce Willis said. "Us? Never! We're too old. We've retired three times."

Then, the couple said, they thought about the 14 employees who would lose their jobs. They thought about Ellis, who has a son with cystic fibrosis.

"I said, 'The Lord has been so good to us and given us so much. Why shouldn't we give back to somebody?'" Joyce Willis said.

The Willises took all they had in the bank, invested it in the restaurant and became co-owners.

They are now fixing up the restaurant and hope that, despite the economy, in five to seven years, they will be able to sell their share of the business to Ellis.

"It's something I've always wanted, always dreamed about," Ellis said. "To me, it's a godsend. It's a prayer answered. It really is."

"Every single day we plan to be here, as long as we can get out of bed and make our feet move, " Joyce Willis said.

The Willises aren't pocketing any pay for their work. The reward, they said, is keeping the business afloat – and the occasional Fiesta Chicken sandwich.