Goodbye to an unorthodox restaurateur: Norfleet Reichle dies at home Wednesday at age 68

March 16, 2018 10:57:25 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Norfleet Reichle, lover of food, drink, friends and outlandish schemes, died at his home Wednesday at age 68. 


In poor health for some time, Reichle was years removed from the events that made him something of a cult legend in Columbus, especially for the "boys who grew up west of the river" with him and for anyone who stumbled across the most unlikely of restaurants, "Fleet's Eats," which he operated out of his home on West Lowndes Road in the early 2000s. 


"Please tell me nothing has happened to Norfleet," Golden Triangle LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said Thursday when asked about Reichle. "He's one of the all-time characters I have ever met." 


Charlie Pilkinton, who still farms land his family has farmed since the 1800s, was Reichle's childhood neighbor. 


"He and my brother, Sam, were the same age," Pilkinton said. "I grew up with Norfleet, who was a few years older than me and his brother Johnny. They were just a real nice family and Norfleet was a very popular kid. Everybody loved Norfleet." 


Like many of his neighbors, Reichle grew up to farm. 


"He farmed for quite a few years," Pilkinton said. "He raised all kinds of hogs and cattle, soybeans, corn, you name it. But he was busted up so bad, I think it was hard on him. So he quit farming and looked for something else to do." 


The physical condition that caused Reichle to quit farming was the result of a car accident he suffered as a teen, Pilkinton said. 


"He and his brother, Johnny, got hit by a truck in Columbus," Pilkinton said. "It killed Johnny and Norfleet was hurt pretty bad. He almost didn't make it." 


"I don't think he ever recovered from it," said Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, who met Norfleet when they were students at Lee High School. "He wasn't the same, but everybody loved Norfleet. That didn't change." 




The restaurateur 


Although Reichle left commercial farming, he continued to raise his own vegetables. 


In 1993, he and his wife, Dot, opened the Country Kitchen Restaurant on McCrary Road on the site of what is now the Farmstead Restaurant. The Country Kitchen quickly became a favorite lunch spot where Reichle's home-grown vegetables were the star attraction. 


"He was a great cook, a wonderful cook," Sanders said. "He grew his own vegetables -- lettuce, beans, tomatoes, squash, okra. And what he didn't grow he got locally, so it was a combination of home-grown food and somebody who knew what they were doing with it." 


After the Reichles divorced, Dot took possession of The Country Kitchen while Norfleet opened another restaurant on Main Street, which ended abruptly when an employee was caught selling drugs out of the drive-through window.  




Fleet's Eats 


What appeared to be the end of Reichle's culinary career was revived by a steel mill. 


At the turn of the millennium, venture capitalist John Correnti was in the process of building the steel mill -- Severstal (now Steel Dynamics) at the Lowndes County Industrial Park, which happened to be near Reichle's home. 


By then, Reichle had been operating a restaurant he dubbed "Fleet's Eats" out of his home. 


It was a unique operation. 


"They made all the food and put it in Crockpots, maybe a dozen," said Sanders. "You just came in the kitchen, filled up your plate and sat wherever you could -- in the living room, the porch, anywhere." 


Soon, word of Fleet's Eats reached the steel mill. 


"Hell, I probably gained 80 pounds the first three weeks I was there," Higgins said. "And Correnti was crazy about the place. He got him a guest book, and it was filled with people from all over the world who came to do business at the steel mill. It was all they could talk about and every time they came, that was the only place they wanted to eat." 


Fleet's Eats had such a cult following that it was included in the book "The Alumni Grill," an anthology of noted Southern writers. 


John T. Edge, head of the Southern Foodways Association at Ole Miss and a nationally-recognized food writer, penned a chapter for the book on Reichle's restaurant entitled "Fleet's Eats: Tales of the Culinary Underground." 


Alas, Fleet's Eats was more a comet than a star. In a few years, the enterprise had ended. Norfleet, who proved to be a wonderful cook, turned out to be an indifferent businessman, sometimes closing up shop for days at a time when the urge to wander off struck him. 


He also had the habit of "flipping for payment." 


"Yeah," Sanders said. "If he knew you, he'd flip you. You'd pay double or nothing, depending on the flip of a coin." 


"That was Norfleet," Pilkinton said. "He was interested in having a good time. Business was not his forte. Fellowship and friendship -- that was Norfleet's forte." 




Norfleet for governor 


Apart from the short-lived Fleets Eats, Reichle was locally famous for his quirky outlook on life. 


"He was always running for governor," said Jimmy Graham. "I don't think he was ever serious, but he was always talking about it." 


At his camp house on Old West Point Road, Graham has converted his barn to something of a local history museum, adorned with photos, signs and objects that tell the cultural history of Columbus. 


Included in the collection is a large sign that states Reichle's campaign platform, which included legalizing marijuana and eliminating taxes. 


The final line on the sign pretty much summed up Reichle's views: "In general, I will tighten up on everything loose and loosen up on everything that's tight." 


There was also his fascination for doing things no one had ever done, his friends say. 


"He called me one time and asked me to do him a favor," Sanders said. "He said he was going to walk from Columbus down to the Coast. I asked him why. He said because no one had ever done it before." 


Reichle wanted Sanders to take Reichle's suitcase to Macon and hide it in the woods. 


"I asked him why he wanted to do that," Sanders said. "I asked him why he just didn't carry the suitcase himself. He said that so many people knew him around town that if they saw him walking out of Columbus with a suitcase, they would stop and offer to give him a ride and he didn't want to fool with that." 


By far, the most notorious effort to do something no one had ever done before came when he decided to jump off the Highway 50 bridge over the Tombigbee River. 


Reichle told friends it was something he always wanted to do. 


"It nearly killed Norfleet," he added. "He landed flat on his back. A boat was down there and they rescued him. If not, he probably would have drowned." 




A chance discovery 


After the end of Fleet's Eats, Norfleet faded from view. He moved to Jackson to live with his mother for several years, returning to Columbus about a year ago after his mother's passing. 


On Thursday morning, Graham was going through some of his odds and ends and discovered one of Reichle's "Fleet's Eats" business cards, which he added to his collection on the barn wall. 


Later that afternoon, Graham learned of Reichle's death. 


"I don't know what to make of that," Graham said. 


Of course, few people knew what to make of Norfleet Reichle, for that matter. 


"He was a good guy," Sanders said. "He had a lot of friends and he had a heart of gold. He'd do anything for anybody. That was Norfleet. There's nobody else like him." 


Chris Reichle, Norfleet's middle son, said the family has been overwhelmed by text messages and calls over the past day. 


"Everybody seems to have their own story about dad," he said. "It's hard to describe him to anybody who didn't know him, to be honest with you. He definitely did things his own way."

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]