He wasn't even officially open yet, and Aubrey Foster was busy. That's the way it goes when you resurrect an institution.
"Durham's been real good to us," Foster said one mid-morning this week, as staff members scurried around and customers trickled into his brand-new Pan Pan Seafood.
"We're just trying to get organized," he said, sipping coffee and looking for details that needed attending to.
For 40 years, Aubrey Foster has been in the restaurant business: in New Jersey, New York, Roxboro and Durham. For 11 years, he ran the Pan Pan Diner at Hillandale Road and Interstate 85. Three years ago, the interstate's widening put it out of business, bereaving church crowds, college students, late-night travelers and just plain fans.
"A lot of people had been asking us to please come back," he said.
Northgate marketing manager Paula Harris can attest to that. Calls started coming from prospective customers as soon as the word slipped out that there would be a Pan Pan again.
Foster has taken over the space formerly occupied by Old Bay Seafood, with one entrance on the mall's food court and another on the Sears-side parking lot. Northgate owner Ginny Bowman was intent on getting another seafood restaurant, Harris said.
That is reflected in the name, and in the nautical decor that shares wall space with cubist prints. Seafood, Foster said, is something everybody likes. But a banner over the outside door proclaimed, "Fish, barbecue, ribs, chicken, steaks; breakfast lunch dinner."
As far as the menu is concerned, Foster said, it's pretty much the same old Pan Pan.
Fish, shrimp, oysters; homemade biscuits stuffed with cheddar cheese; "super hot" pastrami; baby-back ribs, hickory smoked on the premises; golden malted waffles.
"We make our own barbecue," Foster said. "Make everything. I used to be a chef, myself."
As Foster tells it, he got into restaurateuring almost by accident. Having left the family farm near Yanceyville, he got interested in the business as a regular customer at a New Jersey deli and one day asked if they needed any help.
"I like to kid around a lot," he said.
But he was taken seriously; after one day of washing dishes he was moving up the deli's chain of command -- and then into the Army, which trained him as a cook. His hitch completed, "I just stayed with the food business."
Foster credits his wife, Loretta, with inspiring the name "Pan Pan." Looking over a kitchen-less space to put a restaurant, she quipped, "Everything would have to come out of a frying pan."
That was up north. In 1977, Foster moved his family back to Yanceyville -- part from nostalgia, part for the slower pace of life, mostly because he wanted his children to grow up in the South. One of his children, Aubrey Jr., is a partner in Pan Pan Seafood, along with James Barrow, Foster's business partner since the New York days.
Their Pan Pan Diner benefited from being next to the interstate highway, Foster said, where it was open 24 hours a day. "Plus," he said, "we have a lot of Midwestern, Northeastern people moving back here and we offered a lot of things they liked."
His hours are shorter now -- 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. -- and a shopping-mall location is a new experience, Foster said. So far, it's an encouraging one -- notwithstanding that the Pan Pan was still in a shakedown mode of operation.
"Oh, man," he said, "it's unreal. ... We just cut the lights on, and we're busy."