Richard King called his wife one morning out of the blue. “Hey, babe? Heidi?” he said, “I need you to come look at something.”
“What did you buy?” she said. “We’re not buying anything.”
He laughed, the nervous laugh of somebody who just realized they were in trouble. Then he told her to head across town, to the old Black Mountain, North Carolina, gas station they’d been coveting for years. It was an old Pure Oil location built in the ’40s — and it had sat, rotting, for a generation.
When they pushed open the busted-up front door, it smelled musty and dank. They could see that the wood floor had largely collapsed into the basement.
But Heidi King has a keen eye for these things, with her design degree and knack for uncovering something better in the dilapidated. Three years later they turned the crumbling gas station into Pure & Proper (114 East State Street), a charming all-day restaurant with dishes as mesmerizing as the final design.
The couple is there most days now, along with both their kids, but this wasn’t something they’d ever pictured for themselves. They met freshman year in college at a study group — Richard made a joke about how her feet were dirty. “He’s just a charmer,” Heidi King says. Then he offered her a job at the pizza place he was managing at the time. “So, yeah, we got started in the restaurant business, but I never saw that as my thing,” she says.
Richard, a Black Mountain native, ended up following his father into the construction business and built homes in Black Mountain. In 2014, Richard and Heidi did something impulsive and moved to Belize. Then they bought an RV and spent six months driving across North America. They came back to Black Mountain for a stopover and realized, “This town is hard to beat,” Heidi says.
Starting over back in Black Mountain, Heidi got a remote degree from the New York Institute of Art & Design and began working in interior design. In 2017, they bought the franchise rights for White Duck taco shops in Greenville and built a pair of them. They had just finished that project when Richard called his wife to tell her about the gas station he had a handshake deal to buy. “We both love architecture, and this is a pretty special building, so he knew it was an easy sell,” she says.
Buildout wasn’t easy. They added on to the back to add bathrooms and a kitchen and then went to work rebuilding everything. The end result looks a bit European, what with the candelabras on the walls and the richly stained wood floors, and also a bit mountain-chic, with sheepskin throws draped over chairs and a leather couch.
With no experience in the restaurant business beyond taco franchises, they knew they needed to bring in an expert. So Richard cold-called a friend of a friend, Jake Whitman, who had worked in the kitchens of some of Asheville’s best restaurants. He’s a Black Mountain native too, and his wife Ali had known Richard since they were kids. Jake and Ali met at a restaurant they both worked at after moving back home to Black Mountain after college. He liked her right from the start but was nervous about asking a coworker out — finally, she said they should go out for ice cream one night after work. “She’s a very strong-headed woman,” Jake says.
Jake and Richard met for coffee, and, “As soon as Richard told me where the restaurant was going, I was in. I had said a hundred times that somebody needed to put a restaurant in there.”
The Kings had the Whitmans over one night, and Jake put together some things he was thinking for the menu. His plan: a new American concept with a menu that would change frequently based on what’s fresh, injected with an occasional Japanese ingredient to keep things interesting.
They opened in October 2022. On weekday mornings, it’s waffles: a cinnamon sugar version that’s reminiscent of a churro and a tangy-sweet one with yuzu. There are many memorable items on the lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch menus, like okonomiyaki with roasted lamb belly, crispy chicken atop buttery rice grits, and bone-in venison loin on cheesy potatoes.
The Kings’ children both work there, 19-year-old Addie as a server and 17-year-old Rylandis the food runner, a promotion after starting off as a dishwasher. Heidi says the original plan was to hand off the day-to-day operations to a manager.
“We pictured we’d step away after opening, but we’re there every day now,” she says. “Who knew?”