Charlotte’s Classic Eats
As new restaurants open every day in Charlotte, it’s easy to forget about the old standbys, the places that have grown up alongside the Queen City. Our Charlotte’s Classic Eats series highlights the places that you have frequented for years, reminding us why they have stood the test of time.
If you’re a Charlotte native like me, or a longtime resident, you’ve likely experienced the chicken supreme meal from Harper’s Restaurant at least once in your life. Now, 35 years after opening the doors, owner Tom Sasser and his teams are still frying up the chicken strips that made me — and a lot of Charlotte — a believer.
The first Harper’s location opened in December 1987 on Woodlawn Road, where the Honey Baked Ham Company currently sits. I vividly remember going to what I considered the “fancy” restaurant often as a child with my mom and ordering the chicken tenders and fries. They were breaded and seasoned to perfection, but not so much breading that you couldn’t taste the actual chicken. Also, they weren’t too crunchy to the point of scraping the roof of your mouth, and the accompanying honey mustard and barbecue sauces brought it all together.
“It probably took us about six months to really perfect that recipe,” Sasser told CharlotteFive. “We would try it at least 2-3 times a week, sometimes taking breaks for a few weeks, before we went back to the lab. I really wanted to get it just right.”
And get it right they did.
From theater major to restaurant owner
As a child, Sasser was always around great cooks, including his mother and grandmother — so much so that his sister decided to go to culinary school to build on the at-home lessons they were taught.
“My mother and grandmother were self-taught. I honestly never thought about a culinary career, I just enjoyed being able to experience the food they made.”
Sasser graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a theater major. After college, he relocated to Atlanta to further his studies and began working in restaurants to make ends meet. At nearly each restaurant, he worked his way up to manager, but something was missing for him. He knew if he really wanted to love the industry, he would need to open a restaurant of his own.
His former roommate helped him find and acquire the property where the first Harper’s Restaurant opened, at 301 E. Woodlawn Road. His sister came on as the main chef and helped develop the recipes and menu.
“It’s funny how I actually came up with the name, though,” Sasser shared. “Ironically, my middle name is Harper, but that’s not where the inspiration came from. I was out in Eastern North Carolina one day for a consulting job, and I came across an abandoned warehouse building that had Harper’s written on the side of it. It was something about the lettering that drew me in, it reminded me of the magazine Harper’s Bazaar for some reason. So, I ran it by my partners, and everyone seemed to like the name, too. I never told them it was my middle name until years later, but now it’s sort of a signature.”
After a wildly successful introduction to Charlotte, Sasser opened his second location just 5 years later, in September 1992 on Fairview Road — now the remaining Charlotte location for the restaurant. He would later open locations in Pineville (now closed) and Greensboro. The original Woodlawn restaurant closed in 2007.
“Around 1990 or 1991, I was approached by First Union Bank (now Wells Fargo) to open a Harper’s location in Uptown. At that time, Uptown wasn’t booming like it is today, so I didn’t feel it was the right time. After some years, we finally worked out a deal and in 1995, I decided to open Mimosa Grill in that space instead.”
Fast-forward to present day, and Sasser owns Burke Hospitality Group, which includes Harper’s, Mimosa Grill, 1801 Grille, Taco Molino and Horace’s Hot Chicken — a ghost kitchen, delivery-only chicken concept in the walk-up stall in Wells Fargo Plaza.
The key to 35 years of success and counting
Today, customers still enjoy Harper’s chicken supreme meal, as well as the hickory grilled burger and six cheese pasta.
“I have tried to give the six-cheese pasta a rest so many times, especially during the summer months, because it’s such a hearty dish. But customers just won’t let me. Also, I believe we have some of the best wood-fired pizzas in Charlotte, too. Our chefs have to go through a multistep step certification process just to make them.”
As for Sasser’s take on the key to remaining in business more than 35 years, he says it’s been by staying surrounded with all around great people.
“From our customers and staff all the way to our suppliers and purveyors, we’ve really been fortunate to just have great people in our corner. I also make sure I’m treating everyone right, too. Oh, and a great location and landlord don’t hurt, either.”
As for the next 35 years, he wants to first get his restaurants back fully staffed after the effects of the pandemic. Once that happens, he’s hoping to introduce a new concept to Rock Hill sometime in 2023 — but details are still under wraps for that.
“I also want to expand Horace’s Hot Fried Chicken. This way, it gives my staff even more opportunities to grow and move up, or even just change locations within the company.”
Location: 6518 Fairview Rd. Charlotte, NC 28210
Neighborhood: South Park
This story was originally published December 15, 2022 6:00 AM.