As restaurants and chefs in larger cities across North Carolina try to keep up with the ever-changing COVID-19 times, small towns and communities are experiencing a rebirth. While still challenging, a tight-knit community is proven to be the key to success of chartering the unknown. In Tarboro, North Carolina, Inez Ribustello, owner of On the Square, a seasonal bistro, turns to her hometown community for undying support.
An hour’s drive east of Raleigh, Tarboro, population 11,000, draws visitors in by way of its charming main street and historic Town Common — one of two original Town Commons left standing in the United States. On the Square, owned by Inez and her husband Stephen (a chef), has remained a community staple for 17 years. The wine shop, attached to the restaurant, is home to one of the best wine selections in the state as a result of the couple’s Advanced Sommelier status. They’re the only married couple in the world to have passed this exam.
“Where we are right now feels eerily similar to where i’ve been in the past,” says Ribustello, noting COVID-19 has stirred up dark memories from before. “My restaurant world collapsed on September 11, 2001, when the greatest job I had ever known fell into the depths of hell — along with the building that housed it,” she says. Inez held beverage manager title at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World and also served as Stephen’s boss at the time. The two were ironically off premises the day of the September 11 attacks but lost 73 colleagues.
“The scenario is different from this global pandemic but the feelings I had in 2001 are bubbling back to the surface,” says Ribustello. “Life as we know it is changing in ways we never imagined,” she adds — but one thing remains consistent: the Tarboro community showing up for support. In 2002, six months after 9/11, Inez and Stephen made the executive decision to take a break from New York City and post up in Tarboro, her hometown, for the time being. The break turned into Inez’s father buying an old soda fountain shop, which morphed into their now-acclaimed restaurant, On the Square.
“I couldn’t have healed like I did [in Tarboro],” says Ribustello, of coping after 9/11. This is a relevant statement now as the couple faces another tragedy. Shifting gears and closing to only delivery and curbside shook local patrons. “People rose to the occasion,” she says. “It’s so humbling and overwhelming that people really believe that they don’t want to see our town without [On the Square].”
The bistro is wildly different from any other restaurant in the small town. There are regulars for lunch and regulars for dinner; the town loves a solid Wednesday sushi night; and then there’s the wine drinkers who frolic in for a glass or three on the regular. “Stephen and I have said this probably everyday, ‘thank god we are in Tarboro,’” Ribustello says.
The two are obsessed with Spanish cava. The wine shop’s inventory includes everything from the expected more interesting wines like a pét-nat rosé from Gönc Winery in Slovenia; a muscadet from the Loire Valley; and Ramona wine spritzers in cans, which they can’t stock fast enough. “People buy what we have,” she says. It boils down to the small town mentality and trust. It’s different, and it works.
In a time of sheer panic, the entire business model for On the Square has pivoted. Stephen even added a burger on the menu due to high demand. “We are thriving to the point where we may change the whole business model after this,” she adds. A big success has been listening to what the community has to say, but most importantly, what the community wants. This includes keeping the sushi menu available during a pandemic. Currently, 100 rolls orders are put in each Wednesday. The COVID-19 lunch menu is a consistent mix of staples like pimento cheese and fried oyster sandwiches, plus soups, salads, and a couple pastas, while Stephen posts the dinner specials each morning on social media — plus people are ordering lots of wine to-go.
If you peek at a city like downtown Raleigh, it’s a quiet ghost town of closed restaurants and bars, empty skyscrapers and uncrowded streets. Small towns like Tarboro, on the other hand, are thriving. With Edgecombe County Public Schools employees still earning normal pay, plus commuters now working from home, business has never been better — for more than just On the Square.
Alimentaire Wholesome Breads, a bakery serving baked goods, breads, and pastries, is thriving. “People want comforting food and bread is comforting,” she says. While the bakery had to cut down on operating hours, sales have increased, plus adding in treats like bagels on Saturdays has been a huge win.
On the Square is a unique gem in Tarboro, however the community embraces small businesses — the Ribustellos included. During COVID-19 the the family has indulged on cheese biscuits from Abrams Bar-B-Q of Tarboro; wraps from Wayside Wraps , a local food truck that pops up at Tarboro Brewing Company; bread from Alimentaire; coffee from Tarboro Coffee House; pizza from Mama’s Pizza Italian Restaurant; stromboli, pizza, and subs from Brandy’s food truck; and local strawberries and jams from Dail’s Strawberries, usually parked in Ace Hardware’s parking lot.
“We cannot control the event that’s happening all over our world right now,” Ribustello says. “All we can control is our reaction to the event, which most certainly will control the outcome,” she adds, noting this was some of the best advice she ever received by way of her high school coach. As the Ribustellos adjust to the times, the community is right there to catch them.
As for the new normal in Tarboro, at least for now, it’s about adaptation of the times. “The landscape is going to be so much different on the other side,” says Ribustello. “It cannot stay that way if we continue to breathe and to lift one another up and to encourage all of our neighbors in the good ways we know are possible,” she adds.
And sometimes support is as simple as putting a $10 burger on the menu to feed hungry patrons; or customers showing up to mass order sushi rolls midweek when the world feels like it’s falling apart. “I feel like more people are going to want to move to smaller towns and get out of the rat race after COVID-19,” Ribustello adds, as she sifts through her wine inventory in the shop and simultaneously answers the phone to man the influx of to-go orders.