Food & DrinkFood Features

Kopper Kettle Owner Adapts Through Generational Changes

There comes a time in every person’s life when they have to grow up and settle down a bit. The same could be said for Kopper Kettle Family Restaurant.

Greek immigrants George and Penny Karnesis opened Kopper Kettle on Nations Ford Road in what was then southwest Charlotte in May 1971. It’s since gone back and forth between being designated as a Pineville or Charlotte address, but changing identities is nothing new for the restaurant.

Throughout the ’70s and ‘80s, the location served as a wholesome family diner by day and a bar and lounge by night. The windowless home-turned-diner was a popular after-work destination for local farmers and factory workers who would sometimes drink and gamble into the night.

“It was kind of a wild place for dinner back in the day,” recalls Sara Morris, the Karnesis’ daughter, born just four months after the restaurant opened.

Sara Morris, owner and operator of Kopper Kettle. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

A bird’s-eye-view picture of the restaurant and the land around it that was taken in 1971 hangs on the wall near the cash register today, and it shows just how isolated the Kopper Kettle was — three residential trailers are all that can be seen nearby. I-77 was still under construction.

Morris remembers taking her dad’s car for rides through the gravel lots around the land as a young child while he was distracted with whatever was happening inside the restaurant. As much time as she spent in the smoke-filled diner, however, she never imagined she’d one day be running it.

But that all changed in 2014.

In April of that year, her father suffered his first stroke. With her family in crisis, Morris, a counselor by trade, resigned from her job as a health educator at North Central Family Medical Center in Rock Hill and took charge of the Kettle. She expected the role to last a year at most.

Kopper Kettle’s Smash Pot. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“I came here with the idea that it was going to be temporary,” she says, “like I would try to wrap my head around the business and maybe sell it or whatever. Then about five months in I was like, ‘There’s no way I can sell it. I love this place.’”

We’re sitting at a booth near the front door of the original dining room on a rainy Tuesday morning, and throughout our conversation Morris has to pause to ring up customers as they leave, chatting each one up as if they’re family. One elderly white couple tries to keep up as she explains the restaurant’s annual celebration of International Jorts Day, which the Kettle staff celebrates on May 24. A young black girl tells Morris she didn’t eat breakfast because she’s refusing to eat anything until her mom lets her have pizza, to which Morris responds, “Completely understandable.”

It continues like this throughout the morning, with folks of all ages and races streaming in and out; many of them seem to know each other, all of them know Morris. After a couple hours in the restaurant, it’s clear why Morris never could bring herself to sell it.

In her time running the Kettle, Morris has brought it into the digital age, creating profiles on Google, Yelp, Facebook and, most recently, Instagram.

Other circumstances have changed the face of the restaurant over the years, including one that almost wiped the whole place out. Hurricane Hugo hit Charlotte hard in 1989 and did serious damage to the restaurant’s north-facing wall. Upon reconstruction, windows were added, which was the first step in changing the vibe inside.

In the ‘90s, after Morris had her first child, George decided to close for dinner, and today it remains only a breakfast and lunch eatery, with no liquor or beer on the menu. The jukebox is gone, and the smoke clouds have long since cleared out, although that took some time.

Morris laughs as she recalls that when she originally convinced her dad to create a non-smoking section, he designated two booths in the smoke-filled room because they were nearest the door.

One of the more fun parts of running a business for Morris has been playing with the menus. Though generational favorites like the fried pork chops or livermush remain top sellers, Morris has introduced new adaptations that have in short time become hits among newcomers and longtime customers alike.

Morris, who says cooking is one of her favorite pastimes, will sometimes whip something up in the kitchen to make a snack for herself, and twice now those snacks have landed on the menu. Her first creation, the Smash Pot, features a large serving of grilled potatoes, peppers, onions, tomatoes and bacon or sausage with two over-medium eggs placed on top — though it comes fully customizable.

“You can throw whatever you want in there,” she tells me as I peruse the menu.

Her second creation is for those with a sweeter tooth: French toast biscuits. As with the Smash Pot, Morris came up with the idea as a way to satisfy her own craving on a slow morning in the kitchen.

French toast biscuits (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“I just thought about it. I was like, ‘That sounds delicious,’” she says, laughing. “So I did it. I dipped the biscuits in French toast batter and then I grilled it, and I said ‘Holy Jesus, this is good.’ Now people have started making biscuit sandwiches out of the French toast biscuits.”

It’s not just the great food or even her Kopper Kettle family that keeps her around, however; there’s also her real family to think about. Her father George still spends lots of time in the restaurant, chatting with customers who have been coming to the Kettle for nearly 40 years. Multiple strokes have affected his short-term memory, but his recollections of the restaurant’s beginnings and Morris’ childhood are as strong as ever, and she values the time she can spend listening to his stories.

Morris admits that, before returning to the restaurant, she got so distracted by her own job and kids that she didn’t make enough time for her father. Now she can do both.

“He comes here and he drinks coffee and he eats, and that’s part of the reason that I decided to stay, because that is priceless to me,” she says.

We couldn’t think of a better reason to settle down. 

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