Acme Chef Talks Carrboro United & Community Spirit

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Kevin Callaghan shares how a tireless team build local food hub Carrboro United from the ground up to support other local food businesses and feed hungry neighbors

Acme's Kevin Callaghan unloads produce and a family meal from the truck.

It was my third day in Hong Kong, and I’d been oddly drawn to the many small boats that were woven together like a net. People walked among them easily in flip-flops. There was the urgent hum of commerce – fish being sold, along with T-shirts and onions. The Tankas, or “boat people,” had lived on this vast flotilla of boats – their floating homes – for centuries. What dumbfounded me was the fact that most of them would spend their entire life among these boats without ever once setting foot on land. Not once. That was their choice; nothing kept them from venturing onto land. The mere 100 feet between us was farther than these men and women would travel in their entire lives. And there I was, 21 years old and, oh, only 8,300 miles from my home. For at least an hour, I stared in disbelief as they went about their day.

During the last few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the Tankas. I thought about their shared and fierce commitment to home and community; how, literally, their lives are lashed together on a very fluid foundation and the fact that they made it work. For a millennium

As stay-at-home orders took hold in North Carolina to combat COVID-19, there was a new and palpable shared sense of place in Carrboro. Home was no longer a mere structure in a neighborhood or a place where you parked your car – and your ass – after work. Home quickly morphed into a network of people and businesses and interests. The fluid foundation of this community became bound together by shared hopes and fears. Social distancing became a language of respect and patience and mutual care. Gloves and masks became our collective haute couture. 

Monday, March 16, was a hard day at Acme. That morning I sat in a stall in the men’s room and cried into my hands. I was scared for all of our jobs and our future. I was the guy who was supposed to have answers but had none. In less than a day, 75% of our staff were laid off. Indefinitely. Our business as we had known it for 22 years no longer existed. Poof! It was heartbreaking. 

But within hours, a tireless team started working 100-plus hour weeks to retool a new business, Acme To-Go, from the old one. And then they jumped in to build our local food hub, Carrboro United, from the ground up, to support other local food businesses and feed our hungry neighbors. It was a big lift. Overnight, the coronavirus had undermined much of what we thought of as our home and our craft. But it certainly didn’t take the fight out of us. No way.

Then this community showed up. And showed up. And kept showing up. People sent us letters of support from San Francisco and Boston and Nebraska. The Acme kitchen kept cooking, meal after meal. Carrboro United really began to find its footing, serving thousands of meals a week. Kids in masks waved from the back seat as we put their dinner in the trunk of the car. And for the first time, people used the two-handed heart symbol, and it didn’t feel completely cheesy to me. This community wasn’t giving up on us. Or on one another. The knots tying our boats together were just getting stronger. 

Clearly, this pandemic is far from over; hard times are ahead for all of us. There is so much about our collective tomorrows that we do not understand and certainly won’t for the next several months. That’s not easy to hear, and it’s scary to write. But in this first month, the tenacity of this town’s spirit has been remarkable. It’s given me the sincere faith that we will get to the other side. And that we’ll do it together. In 30 years, I’ve never been more proud to call Carrboro my home.

A Carrboro United worker directs a truck into the pickup line
Photo by David Jessee

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Jessica Stringer

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