For the Love of Leland
Barry Jethwa, the owner of Leland’s oldest family-owned restaurant, Shirley’s Diner, has been at the heart of the community for more than 40 years.
When medieval towns stood surrounded by protective walls and guarded gates, monarchs awarded local heroes a key to their city as a symbol of honor, respect and trust. Although the keys of today are more symbolic than functional, this centuries-old tradition continues, and in July 2022 the Town of Leland awarded its first key to Barry Jethwa, one of the community’s most beloved residents.
Jethwa has been serving up Southern comfort food for more than 40 years at his restaurant, Shirley’s Diner, where his love for his work is only surpassed by his love for his loyal customers.
Born and raised in Kenya, Jethwa moved to England in 1966 at the age of 19. After working for several years as a mailman in London, he and his wife, Kaye, decided to move to the United States in 1979. The couple first settled in Myrtle Beach, but when Jethwa found it difficult to find work there, they came to Wilmington, where Jethwa purchased a motel on Market Street. He left the business in 1982, and during hissearch for another opportunity, he came across Shirley’s Diner (then known as Shirley’s Burger House). Jethwa offered to purchase the restaurant from owner Shirley Norris, and on June 15, 1982, the business became his.
“I thought I was just going to be a manager, but it didn’t work out that way,” Jethwa recalls. “I didn’t know anything about the food, because in England it’s different and at home I eat Indian food, so for the first six months I just watched my employees, didn’t say anything and learned the ropes as I went.”
As Jethwa grew the restaurant and his customer base, he also watched as the area around his business grew and flourished. When he first took over ownership, the only other eatery in Leland was McDonald’s, but as the years went on, Jethwa witnessed other establishments take root along Village Road as real estate became prime. When his lease ran out on the restaurant’s original 201 Village Road location in 1999, Jethwa’s landlord opted to sell the property, and Jethwa thought his time as a restaurant owner was over.
“I closed up and went to England for six months, and when I came back, I spoke to my old landlord, who said everybody’s asking for me and missing Shirley’s,” Jethwa says. “He showed me this building across the road and thought I should try again, so I opened back up on December 12, 1999, and haven’t stopped since.”
Jethwa’s loyal customers immediately flocked to his new location at 112 Village Road, and in his first week back in business, he recalls running out of food more than once. As a sign of appreciation for bringing Shirley’s Southern flavors back to Leland, guests filled the restaurant’s front wall with taped dollar bills from floor to ceiling.
“I was very excited to see the locals so happy, because I had missed them and they had missed Shirley’s, so it worked out good for me,” Jethwa says.
Jethwa believes that even as Leland has welcomed so many other restaurants over the years, what makes Shirley’s such a favorite among locals is his determination to keep his menu both delicious and affordable.
“My prices were very low back then, and I still keep my prices low in order to cater to Leland,” he says. “I accommodate everybody the best I can, and that’s what I credit my success to. I never worried about making too much money, because I care more about how I can cater to the local people. They’ve been very loyal to me, so I’m loyal to them.”
Two of Jethwa’s biggest fans are his sons, Hiton and Nilesh, who both grew up at Shirley’s and witnessed the profound impact their father made on the community. Nilesh now works in real estate, while Hiton helps run the restaurant and continues the family business. He believes it’s his father’s giving heart that’s made Shirley’s so special to so many.
“My dad loves all his customers and they all love him,” Hiton says. “Leland was a lot smaller in the 80s when he first started, but that’s how he made relationships with people in the community. He impacted smaller groups, which then made a bigger impact when he succeeded.”
When asked about his giving heart, Jethwa says it’s what keeps him young and happy. He enjoys meeting people young and old and doing things for others whenever he can.
“It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of just being nice to people,” Jethwa says. “If there’s something going on, or they ask for something, I do it. When I find out someone’s had a death in the family, I always send them a bucket of chicken or something, and it’s just become a habit. Those little things are all part of living and a part of Shirley’s.
“Lots of families come in, and customers who’ve grown up here and bring their children back to eat, which gives me a warm feeling,” Jethwa continues. “When kids come in, I always bring them something from the back, like a mashed potato or hush puppy, and I shake their hand, so when they come back, they’re always looking for me. They give me a hug, and that hug to me is worth more than money.”
Jethwa believes Hiton has learned a lot from him, and when it comes to Shirley’s customers, he says his son’s giving heart is sometimes bigger than his own. In addition to helping his father give back to the community, Hiton also helped initiate the acknowledgement Jethwa received as the owner of Leland’s oldest family-owned and operated business.
“I wanted my dad to be recognized for his 40-plus years in business, because it takes a lot of time and sacrifice to be in business that long,” Hiton says. “I spoke to Mayor Brenda Bozeman and told her it would be cool to see my dad get recognized for his efforts and also all the taxes and salaries he’s paid for all his years. A lot of people in Leland know my dad for helping families.”
Bozeman agreed, and on July 21, 2022, she presented Jethwa with a proclamation and key to the town at the July Town Council Meeting.
“My son went behind my back and talked to the mayor, who comes here quite often,” Jethwa recalls. “She came in and invited me to the council meeting and told me to bring my wife, so I went there and she gave me a key to Leland. I didn’t know what the key meant and had to google it, but when I found out what it was, I said, ‘Man, that feels good.’ I don’t know if I deserve it, but I’ll take it.”
As Hiton takes over more of Shirley’s day-to-day operations for his father, Jethwa is able to cut back on the long hours of his past and spend more time with his wife and three grandchildren. He stays busy when he’s at the diner, whether it’s with cooking, mopping, sweeping, cleaning or connecting with the families who mean so much to him.
“When someone asks when I’ll retire, I joke and say I already am, because I used to work 80 hours and now I only work 40,” Jethwa says. “I can’t sit still, so I have to do something. Besides, I would miss the people too much, because this is where I learned how to love people and where people love me.”
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112 P Village Road, Leland
Photography by Bill Ritenour
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