By Matt Lardie | Photography by Beth Mann
Area restaurants are walking a tightrope as the COVID-19 threat persists, attempting to pull off a balancing act that allows them to survive without compromising the health and safety of employees and customers. To say it’s been difficult would be the understatement of the year. It’s been close to six months since the first coronavirus case was identified in North Carolina. As the state began to reopen over the summer and cases spiked, most restaurants faced the agonizing decision of whether, and how, to welcome back their customers. We reached out to several eateries to get a sense of what life has been like. Some have cautiously reopened. Others are still weighing their options. All agree on one thing – this is a whole new world, and survival means getting creative.
One immediate decision that all restaurants faced when the stay-at-home order went into effect was how to remain open, if at all. With little to no advanced warning, entire business models had to be reimagined.
COPA in Durham was in the process of redoing its point-of-sale systems when the shutdown happened and was able to switch to pickup and delivery almost instantly. “We never closed completely,” co-owner Elizabeth Turnbull says. “We were able to get online ordering up and running within 10 days.”
For Hillsborough’s Radius, the experience was a bit more challenging. They tried delivery at first, but as co- owner Kate Carroll explains, “Delivery was a complex and expensive option we realized we couldn’t sustain. We didn’t have the human power to make delivery feasible.” They’ve since found better success through pickup and outdoor patio service, although sales are still far off from what they used to be.
In Chapel Hill, Garret Fleming and Eleanor Lacy, the brother-and- sister duo behind Big Belly Que in Blue Dogwood Public Market, cut back their hours and, for a while, stopped offering their wood-smoked barbecue completely, instead switching to heat-at-home meals for pickup or delivery. Eleanor offered to drop off meals herself in the surrounding neighborhoods, close to where she lives. “In some ways it’s been really rewarding, getting to meet new people,” she says of her new delivery route.
For Kaleb Harrell, CEO and co- founder of Hawkers Asian Street Fare, thinking outside of the box has been key. He and the other founders – Kin Ho, Chee Cheng “Allen” Lo and Wayne Yung – opened the location in University Place as the shutdown went into effect in March. “We jokingly say, ‘If you could pick the worst weekend to open a restaurant in the last 100 years, we nailed it,’” Kaleb says.
“We’ve had to take a really hard look at our business model,” Kaleb continues. “We’ve had to prioritize safety over profit. I think one day the dine-in restaurant experience will normalize, but until then we need to find a way to stay in business.” For Hawkers, that has meant things like bottling and selling some of their sauces and even building and selling restaurant partitions out of their central woodshop to other eateries.
When It’s a Southern Thing on Main Street in Durham switched to takeout, owner Pete Susca had to lay off about 30 members of his staff. “That was far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
The Chicken Hut owner Tre Tapp was instilled with a sense of community responsibility at a young age. As schools shut down and Tre tried to navigate the new landscape, he knew he still had to help his neighbors. So, the restaurant partnered with Healthy Start Academy to give away free meals to local kids.
“I said, ‘We gotta do something,’” Tre explains. “The first weekend after the shutdown, we gave away 900 meals.” He now estimates the restaurant donates about 500 meals a week and says he has no plans to stop.
For these and other restaurants, there was no right way to do business anymore. It was just a matter of trying to survive.
With differing responses from local, state and federal officials, it was sometimes confusing for restaurant owners to know where to turn for help. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program meant to allow businesses to keep employees on the payroll, for instance, had a number of restrictions on who qualified.
Chapel Hill’s Que Chula Tacos on West Franklin Street opened its doors in the middle of the pandemic on May 7. “We couldn’t get any help from the government because we had no previous payroll,” explains co-owner Jose Ramirez. “Everything has come out of pocket.”
Jose credits his wife, Laurena Ibarra, with their ability to stay open right now. “I work [from] 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and she works 5 p.m. to close, sometimes seven days a week,” he says. “That is the main key [to] surviving the pandemic right now, because we are not getting paid.
“We hope after the pandemic [that] we do very good so we can take a long vacation,” Jose says, laughing.
Durham’s NanaSteak was able to get a PPP loan, but as co-owner Aubrey Zinaich explains, “I can’t pay my vendors with that.” While NanaSteak remained closed over the summer and tried to figure out how to reopen safely, Aubrey says that “our landlords [at American Tobacco], especially the Goodmon family, have been so supportive.” The Durham Performing Arts Center even allowed NanaSteak to use some of its patio space and furniture once the restaurant launched outdoor dining in mid-August.
That push for outdoor seating was something that Elizabeth, while still managing her duties at COPA, took on in her role of advocate for Durham’s restaurant community, working with Shawn Stokes of Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas on a joint letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and communicating regularly with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and city officials.
“I understand the challenges they are facing, but I don’t think they understand the urgency of our needs,” Elizabeth says of city and state officials. She points out that it took Durham nearly 10 weeks to launch its outdoor dining program while other cities and towns implemented similar programs in a matter of days.
“There is certainly an empathetic ear from our leaders,” she adds, “but I don’t see a whole lot of proactive work that is really going to save us. It’s like the old adage of sending out thoughts and prayers, but they don’t pay our mortgage or our electricity. We need help.”
Steve Wuench, co-founder of Durham’s Eastcut Sandwich Bar, echoes Elizabeth’s plea for help. First, he says, the government needs to focus on getting COVID-19 under control. “If there’s a high degree of community transmission, businesses cannot return to normal,” he says. “Secondly, support our local small businesses through grant programs [and] reducing property taxes … in the short term, so businesses can focus on sustaining their operations and keeping people employed.”
Opening a new restaurant can be a long and arduous task in normal times. Now it requires almost herculean effort.
It’s a Southern Thing was in the process of expanding to the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, when the pandemic hit. After signing the initial paperwork in February and banking on a mid- May opening, Pete says, “We’re still not there yet. Everything from construction to permits to liquor licenses to food deliveries has been delayed because of COVID-19.”
Annie Johnston, owner of La Vita Dolce in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village, was all set to open a new restaurant a few doors down. With the pandemic slowing everything and Annie forced to devote her attention to the cafe, Market and Moss’ May opening got pushed to September.
“Sometimes the universe has other plans, and the best I can do is accept that, adapt and find new ways to create exceptional experiences for our stakeholders,” Annie says.
One thing every restaurant owner we spoke to adamantly voiced was the need for the dining public to help.
“In my lifetime, I have never seen anything like this,” says Tre of The Chicken Hut, Durham’s oldest Black-owned restaurant. “It takes the community to keep all of these small businesses going.”
“What is sad to me is that chains are going to do fine,” Eleanor of Big Belly Que laments. “I hope that customers really support the unique food businesses that we have here, because we don’t have the resources that chain restaurants have. We aren’t going to make it if people don’t come to us instead of going to Chipotle or Panera.”
COPA’s Elizabeth urges customers to advocate for themselves. “Do your homework,” she advises. “Call the restaurants, look on their websites to see what they are doing to keep people safe.”
“Restaurants are running out of time, and the help that is coming may not arrive in time,” she warns.
Many of these owners point to things like gift cards and takeout as lifelines right now. The restaurants might not turn a profit, but it helps keep the lights on, and during these unprecedented times, even just being able to pay a utility bill can feel like a win.
“I hope that the general public realizes that we are right on the front lines,” says Pete of It’s a Southern Thing. “We are just trying to serve people, give people a nice meal and a chance to get out of the house. We’re not gonna put the brakes on anytime soon. If you have the faith that eventually things will get better … ” he trails off.
Keep the faith. Work hard. Ask for help. Trust your community. It’s a whole new ballgame for local restaurants, and they’re trying every play in the book in order to survive.