The Gray Belle building which houses Fork Forty at 440 State Street won an award for historic preservation. (Courtesy/Fork Forty)
When Charles Weathers looked at the vacant building at 440 State Street four years ago, he saw potential.
He wasn’t aware at the time that the building has been awarded a “Diamond in the Rough” state grant to improve the façade years prior, but that’s exactly how he would have described the building.
Now, that vacant building is the site of a food hall, called Fork Forty, carrying on a tradition of eateries in the space spanning more than a century.
Weathers’ use of the space, which includes apartments, an escape room and a room where you can break things, earned the project a DeMuro Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, the state’s highest honor for the preservation, reuse, and revitalization of architectural and cultural sites.
A lifelong Salem resident, Weathers said he always enjoyed eating at every new restaurant in the city, unofficially reviewing them with Conrad Venti of Venti’s Café.
He wanted to have a food hall of his own, similar to Pine Street Market in Portland, because it was more interesting and had more variety than a sole restaurant.
He said he likes restaurants that serve a few things and do them really well.
“Specify and specialize in something and be known for it,” he said.
Weathers said he personally recruited most of the eateries in Fork Forty.
One of the restaurants, Chubby Panda, used to be a food truck at Beehive Station in south Salem.
Weathers said he was intrigued by the bao they serve and asked if they wanted to be part of the food hall and expand into something bigger. He said he reached out to the owner of the food cart pod, and they left on good terms.
“In some ways I felt a bit dastardly, because I was headhunting,” he said.
At least one of the restaurants reached out to him.
He said a representative from the food distributor Sysco said they had a friend from Wisconsin who made amazing pizza and wanted a spot in the food hall.
Weathers agreed, and now diners can get pies from La Lucciola in the space.
About a month ago, Weathers added a vending machine near the ice cream place, called Slick Licks, that sells unusual items.
“It’s kind of a joke but speaks to some of the quirkiness of my personality,” he said.
Weathers said he might put an old movie in there, birthday decorations or other “weird, offbeat type stuff.”
His son sells his Pokémon cards in the machine, which sell more than the other items, Weathers said.
The food hall opened right at the start of the pandemic, and Weathers said Covid brought accompanying struggles for restaurants that were just starting out or expanding from a food truck.
But there was one Friday night during the summer when Covid restrictions had been relaxed.
“The music was on, people were cooking, folks were laughing, and I finally saw the vision realized,” he said.
When he heard about the award from Restore Oregon, he thought he won because it was a slow year, and no one was doing projects because of Covid.
But the nonprofit told him it was their most competitive year yet.
He said they looked at how historic places are saved and what it means for the community.
“That’s how they measure award worthiness,” he said. “It’s nice validation that this crazy idea was a good one.”
A photo of the Gray Belle from a 1934 Statesman Journal article.
The earliest business in the building was reportedly a Chinese laundry when the area was part of Salem’s Chinatown, Weathers said. In 1907 it was a candy store and he said, “It’s really been a food business ever since.”
According to a 1976 newspaper clipping, the building was the Gray Belle Confectionary and Restaurant until 1934.
It was the Quelle until 1946. A menu from Quelle Café shows the specials included pork or veal chops, pork and beans, Italian spaghetti, homemade chili, cream waffles with rasher of bacon or ham, and hot tamales, all for under 35 cents a dish.
Then it became Nohlgren’s Restaurant, a 99-cent buffet which had vines painted along the building with different types of food growing on them, like a whole turkey, slice of pie or crab.
Monk’s Restaurant opened in 1959 and the owners added a lounge, the article said.
Weathers said the son of the former Monk’s owner contacted him and had stories of a bank robber who hid inside Monk’s. The police found him and there was a shootout inside the restaurant, he said.
He said the son told him his father was worried no one would want to come to the restaurant after that. But people flocked to see the bullet holes, he told Weather.
Then there was the 70s-era Golden Mushroom Restaurant and Toad Stool Lounge.
It became a string of Chinese restaurants over the course of 30 years and eventually sat dormant in 2015.
Weathers described the discoveries inside the building as peeling back layers of an onion.
He said the stairs were taken out sometime in the 1950s and no one had lived on the second floor for decades.
When he got up to the second floor, where there are now five studio apartments, he found a complete kitchen, old mail and ointments and salves.
Weathers said they reused the sink and installed it by the bathrooms inside Fork Forty, near artifacts on display that were found during an archeological dig.
There were also lights he got refurbished and installed the apartment hallway.
He said one looked opaque it was so dark and dingy, but later found out it was caked with tobacco residue.
Weathers said it’s nice in this day and age that, when life is upended, there’s a spot that always has something good to eat.
“I like now being another blip on the timeline, being a part of that history,” he said.
Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].
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