It’s been just over a year since Gov. Cooper ordered a statewide shutdown in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, and if there is one thing North Carolina’s restaurant industry knows for certain it’s that nothing, absolutely nothing, is certain anymore.
The past year has been marked by both triumph and tragedy, with some businesses creating new ways forward while others were forced to shutter. Restaurant and bar employees were laid off by the hundreds of thousands. Bills went unpaid and families went hungry.
The Charlotte Observer counted at least 34 restaurants that closed in the Queen City in 2020, costing the region hundreds of jobs. In Durham, beloved institutions like Bar Brunello and The Palace International were forced to close. The Asheville Citizen-Times estimated that more than two dozen establishments in the city’s close-knit restaurant community had permanently closed by September 2020.
And in the midst of all that was a new wave of sexual misconduct allegations and questions of racial inequality and abuse in the workplace that rocked the restaurant industry across the nation, including right here in North Carolina. One of the state’s most well-known restaurateurs, Van Nolintha of Raleigh’s Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, was brought down by a wide-ranging sexual and toxic workplace scandal. Allegations of abuse and impropriety were leveled at Ashley Christensen Restaurants, and a now-defunct group called the North Carolina Protection Alliance sprouted chapters in seven NC cities, posting stories of alleged abuse at a number of different bars and restaurants across the state.
To say it’s been a difficult year for restaurants would be a gross understatement, and for many, the struggle continues. Though there may seem to be light at the end of the tunnel with rising vaccination rates and a slow return to normal operating procedures as pandemic restrictions are lifted, it is impossible to plot a path forward without understanding the current state of North Carolina’s restaurants, how they got to where they are today, and what needs to be done to fully recover.
In that spirit, Eater Carolinas reached out to a number of chefs and restaurant owners across the state to hear what happened to them during 2020 , where they’re at now, and what the future holds for one of the most vibrant dining scenes in the country. While their experiences varied, every single person who spoke with Eater agreed that the past year will have a huge effect on how the state’s restaurant industry operates for decades to come.
How Things Look Depend on Where You Stand
Large cities were ground zero for the initial social and economic impacts of the pandemic; thriving dining districts like those in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York became ghost towns overnight. Those effects quickly trickled down to midsize urban areas like the Triangle and Charlotte. As more people began to work from home, local restaurants in suburban areas saw increases in delivery and takeout orders, whereas urban eateries struggled with the loss of daytime lunch crowds and evening diners.
“When we closed on March 16, we laid off almost every one of the folks on payroll,” says Cheetie Kumar, chef and co-owner of Garland in downtown Raleigh.
“Initially, we were left to figure it out,” she adds. “We really felt abandoned.”
Kumar’s experience in Raleigh was mirrored in other North Carolina cities. Chef Gregory Collier and his wife Subrina own Uptown Yolk and Leah & Louise in Charlotte.
Uptown Yolk sits right in the center of Charlotte’s business-oriented downtown. “We went from having two, three hundred thousand people around to having like one hundred people,” Collier says. “We had to close there (Uptown Yolk) because it just didn’t make sense.”
Leah & Louise, meanwhile, was just about to open. “The announcement [closing indoor dining] was made one day before we were supposed to actually open,” Collier says. “It might have been two days.”
“We were like, ‘guess we’re just going to do curbside takeout’,” he laughs.
A little over an hour east, in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina, things looked a bit different.
“We did not have a lot of the challenges that restaurants in bigger cities faced,” says Inez Ribustello, co-owner of On The Square restaurant and Tarboro Brewing Company. “Number one was that On The Square has always done takeout. We always had people that were ordering takeout for dinner ... we didn’t have to change the [business] model at all.”
“What happened is that people in Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, weren’t going out of town,” she says. “People were spending their money [locally].” Weekday crowds began to resemble what the restaurant was used to only seeing on a weekday.
On The Square has always had a small retail wine shop, and quickly stocked up on essentials like toilet paper to convert that space into a kind of general store.
“We all know that people started drinking wine at an incredible rate,” Ribustello says. “And then, we had customers who trusted us to do their grocery shopping. So all of a sudden we were buying toilet paper and chicken and delivering — we set up a big delivery service.”
For small-town businesses like On The Square, the sudden influx of money that normally would have been spent in cities like Raleigh was a boon. For many urban restaurants, however, that suburban and rural dollar flight was a death sentence. It remains to be seen if the balance will ever return or if this will be a permanent shift in the dining scene.
Help Is There, But Its Not Easy To Find
PPP loans. Rent forgiveness. Interest-only payments. There were seemingly dozens of programs available to help restaurants weather the economic downturn, but only if one knew where to look. Just because the programs existed doesn’t mean that they were publicized, available to everyone, or even helpful.
Many of the chefs Eater Carolinas spoke with were able to secure funding from both federal relief programs (like PPP) as well as local programs, but often, these chefs and owners were left to navigate the systems on their own.
At Garland, Kumar was able to secure the first round of PPP funds, as well as a couple of Duke Energy Storefront grants to assist with building an outdoor dining area. The grants “were really, really helpful because it was right at the end of the summer when PPP was running out,” Kumar says, “and we just needed that cash flow for furniture and umbrellas.”
“We did not get anything from [Wake County],” Kumar says, “because those programs, as much as we fought for them, were loans.”
“They, the state and the county, did not have anything that was realistic for us to take on,” she says.
Kumar and others had to fight to get local and state officials to understand the severity of what was happening to restaurants.
“We really made some noise,” she says. “I had a lot of communication with some of our state senators. We reached out to the city council and the mayor and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.” Kumar and other restaurateurs even held video conferences with Governor Roy Cooper’s office.
“What it did was illuminate how little anybody knows about the restaurant industry” Kumar says.
She continues, “I think that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services did a really good job educating the public about the [infection] numbers and statistics and what the safety precautions are, but I didn’t feel like we had a real open conversation that addressed our industry in particular.”
Down in Charlotte, Collier credits his wife with helping secure assistance for their two restaurants, noting that she had invested time over the years networking with the Charlotte City Council and local business organizations. For Ribustello, Tarboro Brewing Company was able to secure rent relief for their Rocky Mount taproom from landlord Capital Broadcasting Company, and both the brewery and their restaurant secured some county-level relief and loan repayment deals with their local bank.
At the end of the day, however, restaurant owners were forced to band together, advocate for each other, and slog through paperwork to find whatever financial help they could access. Still, they were often left having to make week-to-week, or even day-to-day, decisions on whether or not to keep the doors open.
“This is a really complex thing that happened to us in the past year,” says Wilmington Chef Dean Neff, formerly of PinPoint Restaurant and chef/owner of the soon-to-open Seabird in downtown Wilmington.
“The solutions were not there; there was no leadership from the top,” he says.
There Is No Going Back To “Normal”
When asked if he thinks the North Carolina restaurant industry will ever return to some semblance of the pre-pandemic status quo, Neff’s uncertainty is clear. “You know, I really don’t know the answer to that,” he says.
“I do know that it exposed a lot of vulnerabilities to the typical way of doing business in a restaurant,” he says.
Takeout and delivery. Heat-and-eat meals. Burger pop-ups, Zoom wine dinners, and grocery-like offerings. All of these pandemic pivots are likely to remain a feature of many restaurants for quite some time.
In Tarboro, Ribustello says that takeout is now 40 percent of the business at On The Square.
“When we were takeout only, Steven [Ribustello’s husband and executive chef of On The Square] put chicken wings on the menu and they sold out every night. The wings are not on there any longer, but that doesn’t mean he won’t put them on as a special,” she says.
“You can’t run a restaurant in Tarboro and look down on anything. You just have to be open to what people are asking for,” she says.
As Seabird prepares to open, Neff says that virtual pairing dinners (where customers pick up food and beer or wine to reheat at home and enjoy during a Zoom call with Neff) will be an integral part of his business. At Garland in Raleigh, the takeout holiday meals from fall and winter in 2020 were so popular that Kumar sold out each time she offered them. The multi-hyphenate restaurant model (takeout plus delivery plus general store plus take-and-bake) will likely continue not only to serve customers who might not be comfortable dining out for quite some time, but also as a revenue distribution and insurance policy.
Financial and structural changes aren’t the only takeaways from the past year; there was a reckoning within the restaurant industry, much like there was across American society, as to how restaurants and their staff handle issues stemming from racism, gender inequity, and sexual assault.
The scandal that brought down the entire top-level management team at Raleigh’s Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, two of the most lauded restaurants in the Southeast, began after a manager referred to a Black employee as a “slave”, and as it unfolded it exposed allegations of sexual assault and rape.
In Charlotte, Collier watched as protests following the murder of George Floyd swept the nation and his own city. He wrote an essay for Resy breaking down the long-time racial disparities in restaurant culture, writing in part,
The reality is we are not allowed to do the things white chefs can do, because they are able to appropriate other cultures, because they think they’re better than those cultures, anyway. They’re doing us a favor. You would never interview a white chef and assume he cooks soul food.
“Certain entities and certain groups in the restaurant industry have, whether directly or indirectly, made it a point not to allow Black people the same part of their dream,” Collier says.
“You know there’s always a story about working your way to the top — where you’ll start out being the dishwasher and end up being the executive chef,” he says. “For most black chefs, you never really get to that executive chef point. You might get to sous chef, but you’re never really going to get to that CDC [Chef de Cuisine].”
“And then in the front of the house,” he says, “it’s even more rare to see African American faces leading these dining rooms, especially these fine dining rooms that have Michelin stars or Four Diamonds or Mobile stars.”
“So I hope the restaurant industry does not come back to normal,” Collier says.
“It’s interesting that during the biological pandemic we also had a social pandemic that was kind of unheard of,” he says, “but that Black folks and minorities ... have been going through since the inception of this country.”
For business owners like the Colliers there is no interest in participating in a future restaurant culture that wishes to return to the way things were, a time of white executive chefs, toxic kitchen brigade systems, and an environment where abuse is allowed, or even encouraged, to flourish.
All of the chefs that spoke with Eater Carolinas agreed that the only certain thing about the future is the ongoing uncertainty.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a switch where it’s like, ‘Pandemic’s Over!,” says Garland’s Kumar. “I think this is going to be sort of a gradual change. I think we’re going to probably have a very optimistic summer and fall, and then the winter — you know, who knows what’s going to happen?”
For Kumar, that unpredictability has meant focusing on what is truly important to her, namely Garland along with Neptune’s and King’s, the cocktail bar and music venue (respectively) she co-owns with her husband Paul Siler. (The pair also formed and play guitar in the band Birds of Avalon.)
“I think it’s actually just solidified my gut [feeling],” Kumar says, explaining how she has turned down offers from new hotels and commercial real estate developments. “There were so many of those kinds of opportunities that were coming my way ... and it never quite felt like me. It was a lot of soul searching.”
“But now, I’m like, ‘Nah, that’s just not me and I don’t envision any joy in that at all.’ And that’s okay,” she says. “There isn’t one way to do this.”
For Neff, who is set to open Seabird in Wilmington later this spring, there is a worry that the future of America’s restaurants might tilt even more favorably towards chains.
“It’s really unsettling,” he says. “You know, I think that it seems as if everything is kind of in favor of homogenous corporate restaurants.”
Neff’s wife Lydia was forced to close her eponymous Wilmington bakery earlier this year, and while Neff counts himself as one of the lucky ones, being able to watch how the restaurant industry has responded to the pandemic and adjust his plans for Seabird accordingly, the future still isn’t settled.
“I think it’s going be a long time before we see [a restaurant] packing 80 people into a room and doing a wine dinner,” he says.
In Charlotte, Leah & Louise was able to open just a few months later than scheduled and in November of last year was named the Second Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire Magazine. Collier notes that some ideas, like the chicken sandwich that quickly became one of the most popular to-go items at the restaurant, will likely become its own standalone concept in the future. That success doesn’t mean that Collier is resting on his laurels, however.
“I’m a very optimistic person,” he says, “but I also plan for everything. Worst case scenario, at 50 percent [capacity], both restaurants are going to be ok.”
“I think moving forward one of the things you’re going to see a whole lot more of is outdoor seating. We also think that there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for the family meal style of food for a long time.”
“And now, this is the funny part of the pandemic,” Collier says. “In the restaurant industry, I think this is the first time where almost everybody was equal. I think that’s why the social reckoning piece of it is so strong, because this is kind of the first time we in America really have [had] a similar struggle.”
“It took a biological pandemic for people to be, like, ‘Wow,’” he says.
There is no doubt that North Carolina will continue to lose restaurants. There is no doubt that the racial and behavioral reckoning that has hit the restaurant industry could take years, if not decades, to fully play out. And there is no doubt that anything resembling normal is a long way off.
But even after a year of loss and grief, these chefs are still motivated by possibilities, from opening new restaurants to merely weathering the storm with their teams intact. Regardless of their geography they are taking this time to not only rethink how they do business, but also try to figure out how their industry can become more resilient in the future.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.