To say that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had a disastrous start to the fall semester would be an understatement, to put it mildly. UNC pushed forward with plans for in-person teaching against the advice of local officials and its own faculty only to have to close campus and shift to remote learning less than two weeks after the start of classes. Hundreds of students tested positive for COVID-19 within the first week as images and videos, like this one of a crowded sorority rush event, made headlines. UNC went from being the crown jewel of North Carolina’s public university system to a nationwide laughingstock, the prime example of how not to run a college during a pandemic.
Lost amongst the finger-pointing and recriminations has been the impact the whiplash opening and subsequent closure have had on local Chapel Hill restaurants. Like college towns across America, Chapel Hill is inseparable from the university and most businesses rely on the yearly influx of students to keep their doors open.
Franklin Street, the town’s main artery, runs alongside campus and is lined with businesses and restaurants that cater to students. Que Chula Tacos had grand plans on being one of those businesses when they opened last spring, and as they navigated the statewide shutdown and slow reopening, co-owner Laurena Ibarra looked forward to the start of classes in the fall and hopefully a return to normalcy.
“We would say 90% of our customers are UNC students,” Ibarra said.
Melissa D’Auvray is the wife of chef William D’Auvray and a partner in Lula’s, a southern-inspired Chapel Hill restaurant that had to close permanently in July. She estimated that over 75% of the restaurant’s business was directly tied to the university.
“It was a place where students and staff could come in large groups but also bring a date or visiting guests,” she explained. “Upstairs was twice the size and exclusively for events, a large portion of which were tied to UNC events, alumni weekends, games, and conferences.”
Matt Gladdek is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, an organization funded by both the University and the Town of Chapel Hill and tasked with supporting and promoting the downtown area.
(When contacted for comment a UNC official directed Eater to Gladdek and declined to issue any official comment from the University itself.)
“We have many well-loved businesses that not only have a lot of their business connected to UNC but also do a substantial amount of catering, and that has dried up,” Gladdek said in a recent interview.
“Downtown Chapel Hill is set up on a boom-bust cycle” as a result of its connection to UNC, Gladdek explained. The summer months, when students have returned home, are traditionally lean times.
“We’ve basically been in the summer doldrums since March,” Gladdek said, which is when North Carolina first went under a stay-at-home order. “Everyone had high hopes for the University opening.”
What quickly became clear however was that UNC’s reopening was not the salve it was hoped to be. Restaurants who had struggled to build up enough of a local clientele base to at least keep the lights on saw those same customers suddenly retreat in the face of exploding COVID cases on campus.
“What has become obvious in hindsight is that opening and closing have been really bad...in part because the locals stay away from our businesses,” Gladdek reflected.
“The first week that UNC switched to remote learning, sales went down. That week we got very concerned if we would be able to remain open,” said Que Chula’s Ibarra.
Ibarra notes that in the weeks since business has leveled out, with an increase in to-go orders and busier evenings than she expected. “We understand ... switching to remote learning was for the safety of all,” Ibarra acknowledges. “Sales [were] better after the second week of remote learning.”
For now it remains to be seen whether or not Downtown Chapel Hill’s restaurant scene will ever fully recover from the one-two punch of COVID restrictions and poor planning by the University. Many of the small, independent restaurants that line Franklin Street may not be able to keep their doors open, especially since federal aid has dried up.
Local news site Chapelboro notes at least four restaurants in Chapel Hill that have closed permanently since the University reopened, including the iconic Elmo’s Diner.
D’Auvray, of the now-closed Lula’s, told Eater “we wish the board would have listened to the Orange County Health Department and their own professors and staff who warned against reopening the university to thousands of students.”
“At the very least, we wish they would have acknowledged the impossibility of keeping thousands of young adults socially distanced and safe on campus and not passed the blame on students when things expectedly went awry,” she added.
• Orange County Health Director to UNC-Chapel Hill: Go Online as Default for Fall Semester, Restrict On-Campus Housing [NC Policy Watch]
• Open Letter on COVID-19 From UNC Chapel Hill Tenured Faculty to Undergraduates [The Charlotte Observer]
• UNC Students Concerned After Video Surfaces of Crowded Sorority Rush Party [CBS17]
• What’s Open and Closed? Restaurant Options in Orange County [Chapelboro]