By John Harper / Correspondent
Chris Campbell and Wayne Sawyer had one thing in mind in 1986 when they launched Mex-Econo Restaurant and Bar in Kill Devil Hills.
“We just wanted to open a Mexican restaurant,” said Sawyer, now retired and living in Currituck County. “There wasn’t one at the time on the Outer Banks.”
But after a couple of years Sawyer left the building, and locals Bob Shook and Michael Geissinger joined Campbell, who died in 2019, as owner-managers.
And that’s when the restaurant-bar made a radical left turn.
Mex-Econo became an underground club that was wide open, and its mythology looms large 26 years after it closed in 1994. It was a place unlike any other venue on the barrier islands at the time, hosting bands from all camps playing original music, serving offbeat cuisine and featuring unique décor.
Mex-Econo (or “Mexis” as regulars called it) quickly became a space where freaks, geeks and hippies could commune.
The building, near milepost 8.5 on the beach road in Kill Devil Hills, now houses Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint.
A mannequin-hand doorknob at the main entrance was probably the first clue that patrons at Mex-Econo were in for a walk on the wild side.
The dimly lit interior featured booths on risers, a display of vintage vacuum cleaners, album covers on the walls, an open parachute on the ceiling, pool tables, an enamel-tiled bar and a 1970s-style disco light.
The floor was concrete, and the ceiling was low, which made it challenging for band sound engineers.
“I’d describe it as thrift-store chic,” says local radio DJ and program director Mark St. John, 55, of Nags Head, who was regular customer in the early years of the club. “There were a lot of odd and unusual people. … It was a place you could really let loose, be yourself and have a great time.”
Another frequent visitor at the beginning was Ben Sproul, 53, who now works in marketing for a real estate company and serves as the mayor of Kill Devil Hills.
“It was OK to be quirky and weird,” he says. “The irreverence was fun and infectious.”
And that feeling never went away for Sproul, who hosted two Mex-Econo reunions when he operated the Pit Surf Shop in Kill Devil Hills.
Dave Grohl – yeah, that Dave Grohl – of Nirvana and Foo Fighters hung out at the place in the early ‘90s when his family owned a house in Corolla.
Patrons looking for grub could munch on such delicacies as spam nachos, hot-dog chimichangas and “killer shark tacos.”
Music was the major calling card for the club, which gained a national reputation for its willingness to present bands employing a wide variety of styles and sounds: punk, alternative, blues, funk, rock and jam.
Hundreds of acts played the relatively small, 320-capacity venue over the years, including Southern Culture on the Skids, GWAR, Dillon Fence, Left Wing Fascists, The Jayhawks, Flat Duo Jets and Kenny Neal, an acclaimed blues guitarist.
“It was the golden age of the Outer Banks music scene,” says Dominic Carpin, 59, leader of the Cashmere Jungle Lords, the Richmond, Virginia.-based “southern-fried, salsa-surfabilly” band that rocked the house dozens of times. “Whenever we played, there seemed to be mayhem.”
Cover charges ranged from $5 to $10, according to John Howard, 60, of Southern Shores, who started working as a bartender and band-booker at the club in 1988.
But he added: “No one was turned away, Chris (Campbell, the Woodstock attendee who co-owned the bar) would trade for just about anything, including ash trays and meat necklaces.”
Often, there was a mosh-pit and musicians diving into the crowd.
“Your feet were pitch-black if you were shoeless,” remembers Julia Scheer, 57, of Kill Devil Hills. “And you were covered in sweat from dancing and mosh-pitting.”
“It was just such a sense of community,” says Laura Perkins Tripp, 54, who worked four summers there and now does marketing in Richmond,. “Every night was a big scene.”
But in 1994, it was the end of the world as they knew it. Like sand in the ever-present winds here, the mood on the Outer Banks was shifting. It was becoming more of a family destination. Plus, bands and operating expenses were getting too expensive.
So, after a final summer season, the groovy disco light was turned off and the owners shook the mannequin-hand doorknob one last time.
The party was over; Mex-Econo was no more.
More than two decades later, Tara Clark-Latino, 50, of St. Petersburg, Florida, still has warm feelings for the funky little shack lovingly described over the years as a dive bar.
“Summer of 1988, I was 18 and it was the only bar that would let me drink without any hassle,” she said. “Booths on risers, thrash bands. I knew I had found home from the moment I walked through the door.”