By Jay Callahan
Mary Haglund didn’t have an easy route to running one of the most successful restaurants in Winston-Salem. The Gary, Indiana transplant paved her path against the odds as she fought a past of alcohol abuse to triumph in a man’s world of operating a restaurant in Winston-Salem. She now owns Mary’s Gourmet Diner on Trade Street, which has one of the most unique atmospheres and best menus of any restaurant in the area.
Mary grew up in Indiana, just thirty miles from Chicago. She spent time all over the country in her youth, and went to high school in the Philippines. Mary and her first husband followed her parents to Winston-Salem in 1978. She fell in love with Winston the first time she stepped foot here.
During the eighties, Mary spent time working as a waitress at restaurants like The Lighthouse and Mr. Waffle. Mary’s father was a preacher and there was no drinking or drugs allowed growing up in her family. There was alcohol abuse in the family though. Mary had an uncle in Chicago that got so drunk one night that he lost his foot in the snow.
In her mid-twenties, after never drinking, Mary got turned onto bourbon. She went from a couple shots to carrying a flask around in her purse, and she also turned to drugs. “I was going nuts,” said Mary. ” I would wait tables at night and then go party all night. I was a wild woman.”
Mary and her husband had two children at the time. “We loved our daughters, but we weren’t good parents at that time,” said Mary. “Our daughters still have scars from that.”
She got pregnant with their third daughter, Lillie, and she quit everything. She was fine for a while, but she started drinking again when Lillie was eighteen months old. She would black out and lose days at a time. She tried to start a wedding catering service, but it didn’t work out, since she was a wreck.
Mary bottomed out and locked herself in her bedroom for a whole weekend. She prayed that she would die. She had a close friend that got her involved with Narcotics Anonymous. She used what she learned there to permanently quit alcohol and drugs. “If you give me tools, I can do it,” said Mary. She has been sober now for twenty-eight years. “I should be dead,” said Mary. “Everything I have, my family and my life, is a gift of my sobriety.”
After kicking alcohol, Mary transitioned from being a waitress to working in the kitchen at The Rainbow Cafe. Bob Wells gave Mary her first opportunity as a restaurant manager. “It was complete chaos in the kitchen,” said Mary. “I am a Virgo and very well-organized, and I could not handle the chaos. I went to Bob and told him I needed to straighten the place up.”
She worked at other restaurants like Horse’s Mouth and Complete Feast. “Chefs that were men used to be very mean at that time. Complete Feast was the first time I worked for a women running a kitchen and it was so much more of a cooperative effort.” After working at Horse’s Mouth, Mary vowed to never run a kitchen for anyone else again.
Mary went back to school at Guilford to become a substance abuse counselor, but always had a pipe dream to open a restaurant. The owner of one of the first coffee shops in town, Penny University, had to close down and gave Mary a very good price on her restaurant equipment. Her parents put up their apartment building as collateral for Mary’s first business.
“I am a risk taker by nature, and I made every mistake possible with my first restaurant,” said Mary. In 2000, she opened Mary’s Of Course on the corner of Brookstown and South Marshall and hit the ground running. Mary’s became popular right out of the gate. They didn’t have a walk-in or an electric dishwasher in the first restaurant, but there would be lines out of the door every morning. In that tiny space, they would sell one-hundred, dozen eggs in two days.
They were so busy on the weekends that it became hard on Mary physically. “It was like going to war every weekend. It was a place like nothing I had seen.” Mary turned down moving to a bigger facility four times. In 2010, an investor convinced Mary to go look at a place on North Trade Street. At that point, nothing was opened up on that end of the arts district.
Mary walked into the building on 723 N. Trade Street that was originally a bank in the 1920’s, and was a roofing business in 2010. When she walked into the building, it was filthy but everything appeared in Mary’s head and she fell in love right away. She told the developer where she wanted everything to go, and the next day she had the architectural drawings. “My risk taker self stepped in and I said let’s do it.”
Mary didn’t realize how difficult it would be to transition to such a big restaurant. For the first two years it became really hard for the restaurant to succeed. She felt that it was ahead of its time in that period and it took her a long time to stabilize the restaurant. They tried dinners, but at that point Mary decided to go back to their staples of breakfast and lunch, and the restaurant took off. The Huffington Post and The San Francisco Examiner recently called Mary’s Gourmet Diner one of the best places to eat in the area.
When Mary had her first job at The Lighthouse, she learned that working with your family is very important. “It’s very valuable to always have a family member on staff,” said Mary. “Nobody, not even your most trusted employee, has the same position as a family member.” Currently, two daughters and a grandson work at Mary’s, and her ex-husband is her business partner. “Having this restaurant has been a spiritual journey for me. Like being a parent, it is the hardest and best thing I have done,” said Mary.
Now that the restaurant is stable and doing well, Mary wants to move onto the next mission of her life. She got teary-eyed talking about her upcoming goals. “I love this community so much, and I feel that I am deep in the community,” said Mary.
“Still in 2016, as a woman you have to work twice as hard as a man to get just as far,” said Mary. She wants to help women in the community make connections and to support, empower, and educate them. Along with consulting women that are starting businesses in the area, Mary is working with EMCarts Community Innovation Lab. EMCarts, a company based in New York, selected Winston-Salem and Providence (RI) as pilot sites for their Community Innovation Labs. The labs address tough social challenges by deeply integrating artists, artistic experiences, and cultural organizations into rigorously designed and facilitated change processes.
With the help of Rebecca Byer and Paola Miranda, Mary has formed an offshoot from the lab called Mary’s Mavens. The group, which is free to all women, meets monthly in Winston-Salem. “I had no idea there was as big of a need in our area as there is,” said Mary. In just the first couple of months of the group, they had over sixty women showing up to meetings, and now have nearly 900 in a Facebook group. “I want women to start acting like they are a majority and not the minority.”
Mary has battled through alcoholism and being a woman in a man’s field to become a very successful entrepreneur in Winston-Salem. In the future, hopefully she can instill her wisdom to younger women in the community to start their own businesses. Our community is a better place for what Mary has already done.
This article originally ran on Jay’s blog in March of 2016. You can find Jay and his blog in the links below.