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Durham restaurateurs struggle amid national staffing shortage

Where chalkboard easels listing daily specials and happy hour cocktails once sat outside local restaurants, their owners now post bold-faced “HELP WANTED” signs.

Durham restaurateurs say they were lucky to survive the worst of the pandemic. But just as they were growing hopeful about reopening, they were hit with an unexpected obstacle: finding cooks, cashiers, dishwashers, bartenders, waitpersons and other workers.

“People are leaving the industry in droves now,” said Wyatt Dickson, owner of barbecue restaurant Picnic. “Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced. That’s the new normal.”

In May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1.2 million job openings in the restaurant industry, the highest monthly figure since 2000. There aren’t enough people who want to fill those jobs.

“Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced,” Picnic owner Wyatt Dickson said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Picnic, located off Cole Mill Road, needs twice as many employees as it  has right now, Dickson said. With his current low staffing numbers, he can’t open indoor dining or offer full service outdoors. So his customers must order online or at a takeout counter and then bring their own food to outdoor picnic tables. 

Instead of servers and bartenders, this new model requires cashiers, food packers and telephone operators. Unfortunately for these workers, their new roles involve little or no interaction with tipping customers. Picnic’s best servers used to make well more in tips than they would from their hourly wages, Dickson said, so for them working at the restaurant is now far less lucrative. 

To make up for the shortfall in earnings, he implemented a service charge so that when customers pay their checks, the gratuity is already included. 

Customers did not welcome the change. They complained that their meals are more expensive and that their power to decide about tipping has been taken away from them.

“There are people who feel that the restaurants are taking advantage of COVID and adding a service fee. But no, we’re definitely not. We’re just trying to find a way to make it,” Dickson said.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” said Ryan Jones, general manager of GRUB Durham. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

GRUB Durham, a popular Southern brunch spot, is also struggling to make do with fewer employees. GRUB sits on Chapel Hill Street, where patrons fill outdoor tables and a rooftop bar that looks out over the busy road. In the kitchen, it’s even busier. 

“Nobody can get sick or go on vacation now,” joked general manager Ryan Jones. 

GRUB hasn’t been able to accept as many guests as Jones would like because the restaurant simply wouldn’t be able to handle it, he said. In the kitchen, two line cooks are performing the job of four.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” Jones said. “Is this sustainable long-term? Absolutely not.”

A new kind of waiter

While some restaurants have switched to takeout only and shortened their hours in response to the staffing crisis, others have turned to QR codes.

Patrons at Eastcut and other restaurants use QR codes to read the menu, place their orders and make payment, all on their phones. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The introduction of QR codes in restaurants allows customers to view a menu, place an order, and pay their check all from their phones, reducing the need for waiters and cashiers.  

Brad Bankos and Steve Wuench, co-owners of Eastcut Sandwich Bar, were quick to implement the new technology. 

Eastcut patrons no longer choose from the offerings on a floor-to-ceiling blackboard menu inside, because they no longer are allowed inside the restaurant. Now they sit outside and place their orders by scanning laminated QR codes taped to patio tables. 

“There will never be a line in the restaurant ever again,” Bankos said. “The whole flow and service model will look different to people.”

The way Bankos sees it, the QR code system leverages technology in a way that will both save guests time and give them more control over their experience at the restaurant.

Jones is not convinced. He refuses to use QR codes at GRUB. He doesn’t think that finding ways to eliminate the need for employees is the right solution to the staffing shortage. For him, QR codes fundamentally change the experience of eating out, making it feel impersonal and detached. 

“We don’t want GRUB to be a place that just shuffles food,” Jones said. “We want people to be able to come and see each other and interact with our staff. We want to be a neighborhood hangout.”

Dickson feels the same way and said that QR codes are not part of Picnic’s “ideal customer experience.” But if it comes down to using the technology or closing his restaurant, he’ll opt for the former. 

Still, while QR codes may keep things running smoothly in the front of the house, they can’t contribute in the kitchens where help is needed most.

Scraping the barrel

In the midst of this war for talent, restaurants are forced to fight for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. 

Restaurateurs are offering perks that include flexible hours, health care reimbursement, paid time off, and free sandwiches. This help-wanted sign was posted at Devine’s Restaurant & Sports Bar. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Eastcut is one of those restaurants.

When people navigate to Eastcut’s website, the first thing they now see is a bright yellow pop-up ad urging them to apply for a job. The ad lists perks including a flexible schedule, a health care reimbursement program, paid time off, and, of course, free sandwiches.

“We’re trying to just focus on the things that we can control, because the market for jobs right now is really competitive,” said Bankos. “We have to make sure people see us as a great employer.”

In spite of their efforts, Bankos and Wuench still cannot find the number of staff they need to re-open indoor dining at their sandwich shop. Their current business model relies almost entirely on pickup orders. 

“I don’t think the 2019 Eastcut will ever exist again,” said Bankos. “We’re still serving similar food, but the operation has drastically changed.”

When Bankos and Wuench began asking workers to come back as the pandemic waned, they expected some to decline because of health concerns or a newfound preference for unemployment checks. But they were surprised to find that many of their former employees have decided to leave the restaurant world completely. 

“The restaurant industry has always been a tough one to work in, and I think in their time away many people may have found opportunities in what feel like less stressful environments,” said Bankos. 

Before COVID, Eastcut received 30 to 50 applications a week. Now they get around six at most.

GRUB saw a similar dropoff in applicants. 

When their job postings on Craigslist and Indeed stopped being fruitful, management hired a recruiting company to find ready, willing and able workers.

The recruiters have brought in more applications, but 60% of people who apply don’t come to their interview, Jones said. Of those who are offered the job, 20% don’t show up on their first day. 

At Picnic, Dickson says the most frustrating aspect of the staff shortage is knowing how well his restaurant could be doing, if only he could hire more people.

“It should be boom times. This should be a bonanza,” Dickson said. “There is pent-up demand for what I have to offer, but I’m handicapped in my ability to meet it. And that sucks. It’s like there’s money on the table, and we really need it, and we can’t reach it.”

At the top: Restaurants are fighting for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. This sign was posted at Maverick’s Smokehoouse & Taproom. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

New pavement technology kicks technicians to the curb

The city of Durham used to rely on a simple approach to identify the roads that needed the most repairs: a technician driving around the city looking out the window.

Now the city has a newfangled approach: high-tech data collection vehicles with software that can paint a detailed map of the bumpiest roads.

Officials showed off the new vans at City Hall on Tuesday and said they would lead to better decisions about which roads to repair and resurface. The black and white vans, accented with yellow and red stripes, belong to Roadway Asset Services (RAS), a company hired by the Public Works Department to find problematic roads. 

“The vans have got newer, brighter cameras that are going to give us better vision,” said RAS President Scot Gordon. “It’s more of an automated system. It’s more repeatable, it’s more reliable, and it takes away some of the personal subjectivity.”

For the next four months, the RAS vans will cruise around neighborhoods collecting data and images for an online database. 

The vans might seem odd prowling through residential streets with a submarine-like antenna, cameras mounted on the front and the back, and multiple “CAUTION” decals. But Gordon said people will hardly notice them.

“The vans basically get out every day and they flow with traffic. They’re not stopping traffic. They’re not closing any roads. People aren’t even going to know they’re there,” he said.

The vans are scheduled to cover 40 to 50 miles of roads each day, collecting three types of data. An antenna camera will take a panoramic shot of a street with sidewalks, gutters, and street signs included. The back cameras will point straight down at the pavement and photograph cracking or weathering. The front cameras are the “profilers” that will record the smoothness of the road. 

After all 1,497 lane miles of city roads have undergone a “pavement evaluation,” RAS analysts will look at the data and give each street a condition rating from 0-100. Once city officials have these numbers sometime next spring, the Public Works Department will use them to figure out the most cost-effective approach for maintenance. The project is being financed by the city’s annual pavement budget of $7 million.

Clint Blackburn, who runs the city’s pavement management program, says officials will likely opt for a preservation model that focuses on routine, preventative maintenance for all roads rather than the more expensive “worst first approach” that would fix the most problematic roads, but do little in the way of overall maintenance.

“We want to keep our good roads in good shape and then slowly work on those other problematic roads as we have money,” Blackburn said.

Durham residents say they’re tired of bumpy roads. The annual Durham City and County Resident Survey showed that 45% of Durhamites were dissatisfied with road maintenance. They ranked it in the top three issues that should receive the most attention from city leaders in the coming years.

Blackburn said the city’s goal is always to keep residents happy, but they might not see results right away.

“In the long term, we get a lot of great results and that’s going to protect us from wear over time, but at first, it’s kind of a shock to residents because it’s hard to see the change immediately.”

The city tries to educate Durhamites about this work through neighborhood meetings, but COVID-19 has made that difficult in the past year. According to Blackburn, hardly anyone attends the virtual meetings.

“Sometimes we get zero people. It’s hard to get the message out,” he said. 

The city last assessed the roads in 2018 when the Public Works Department hired a contractor with similar data collection vehicles to RAS. (The results of that study can be found online in an interactive map in which roads are colored according to their condition rating. The average rating was 69 and slightly more than 25% of streets are highlighted orange, symbolizing poor condition.)

This year’s analysis should get even more accurate figures because of its use of AI algorithms rather than human analysts, officials said. They are part of a pilot program that will assign condition ratings automatically. Before, analysts had to consult a 98 page manual to identify and mark problems in the roads, now all they have to do is press a button. 

Photo above: Durham has contracted with Roadway Asset Services to use its high-tech vans to assess city streets. The vans are equipped with cameras on the front, back and on an antenna. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

State park rangers fell trees to thwart cliff-jumpers at Eno Quarry

After a series of drownings and broken-bone injuries at an old rock quarry in the Eno River State Park — a beautiful swimming hole enjoyed by Durhamites since the 1970s — state park officials have taken action they hope will prevent future accidents.

This spring, they felled trees to create a barrier at a dangerous jumping spot — a cliff with a 25-foot drop into deep water. 

While they hope to make the four-acre Eno Quarry a safer place to visit, they acknowledge that some visitors are upset about the change.

“I know that it makes people unhappy,” said Kimberly Radewicz, the Eno River State Park superintendent. “But the quarry needs to turn into a purely recreational area, not a hub for daredevils.”

The four-acre Eno Quarry has been a popular swimming hole since the 1970s. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Four swimmers have died since 1993 at the Eno Quarry, which Radewicz calls a “beautiful nuisance.”  In recent years, her office has received calls about broken backs, broken feet and broken ankles. Three years ago, a 15-year-old girl broke four ribs and suffered a collapsed lung after jumping from the cliff and hitting a tree trunk on her way down. 

The Eno Quarry is surrounded by steep banks in some areas and is uniformly around 65 feet deep. The view from its rocky ledges may give the illusion of a smooth landing, but just under the surface of the dark green water lies a treacherous mix of logs and debris. To enter the water, swimmers must either jump from a 12-to-25-foot rock shelf, climb down a rocky bank, or wade in through the only shallow area — where the bottom is riddled with debris and sharp rocks. 

On her routine patrols, Radewicz warns visitors of the quarry’s hidden dangers. 

Eno River State Park rangers warn quarry visitors of underwater dangers. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

“I tell them the quarry is beautiful, but there’s these other things you need to know for your own protection, for your own security and safety.”

Visitors frequently do not realize how deep the swimming hole actually is, and that there are no lifeguards, Radewicz said. After she shares her insights and statistics, they sometimes reconsider their plans to jump or swim without life vests or rafts.

The Eno Quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. In later years it filled in naturally with water, and visitors soon followed.

The quarry was originally on private property, and locals would trespass to swim, fish, or cliff jump. When people started to get hurt, the property owners at the time, the Coile family, took action.

“They put up barbed wire, they put up barriers, and people would tear them down,” said Radewicz. “It was a very popular place for people to go. I’ve heard stories that they hired a guy with a .22 rifle to try to keep people away.”

Eno Quarry swimmers on a July afternoon. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

For 29-year-old Durham native Todd Fox, the Eno Quarry and its infamous jump have been a reliable weekend destination for more than 13 years. In fact, Fox’s parents met while swimming there, when they were teens. 

After seeing the felled trees on a recent visit, he was devastated.

“They massacred [it],” Fox said. “All that history gone … years of experiences my son will not get the chance to have.”

Quarry visitors walk about a mile from the parking lot, using the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The Eno Quarry became part of the state park in 2003. The superintendent at the time, Dave Cook, foresaw trouble and tried to ban swimming there altogether. He put up a fence around the jump spot, but outraged swimmers dismantled it, and Cook and his staff eventually revoked their ban. Unable to effectively prohibit swimming, they decided they would simply discourage it. 

To reach the quarry, visitors park at the Cabe Lands Access parking lot off Howe Street and hike about a mile on the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails, navigating under trees and over streams to reach a clearing in the woods. The trail is marked with signs that warn against swimming in the deep water with its submerged hazards, and against jumping or diving from the quarry’s steep banks.

The signs are meant to prevent accidents, but they aren’t a guarantee.

The earliest reported drowning at the Eno Quarry was in 1993. In 2007, 18-year-old Ian Creath drowned while swimming far off shore. Seventeen-year-old Lamont Burt Jr. died in 2015 while swimming just below the jump spot. Nicklaus Brown, 18, drowned after jumping from the cliff and failing to resurface in 2019.

Under former superintendent Keith Nealson, the state park’s response to fatalities focused on increasing quarry patrols and constantly reminding the public of its dangers. Visitors often laughed off his rangers’ warnings, Nealson said.

Nealson and his staff discussed putting up another fence, but they didn’t want to repeat Cook’s mistake. For a while, whenever people called his office for information about the swimming hole, Nealson resorted to saying “we don’t have one.”

Kimberly Radewicz, Eno River State Park superintendent. Credit: NC Division of Parks & Recreation

“When you reach a point where you can’t manage people, you have to find creative solutions,” Nealson said in an interview.

The Eno Quarry makes up just one-tenth of a percent of the state park’s property,  but it is the source of 70% of all emergency calls and citations, he said. 

“The hardest part of managing the entire state park was that quarry,” Nealson said. “On a typical summer weekend, it would be unusual if we didn’t respond to at least five or six incidents there.”

Radewicz knew she needed to do more, especially now that soil erosion is making all entry points increasingly precarious. After she was promoted from park ranger to superintendent in 2019, she channeled her new authority into safeguarding the swimming hole.

When the state park closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, she leveraged the time to brainstorm solutions before reopening. The existing warning signs were not enough; fences can be climbed or destroyed; and a swimming ban is impractical to implement and enforce.

“We would have to have rangers down there 24 hours a day,” Radewicz said. “We don’t have those sorts of resources here.”

Rangers felled trees to block access to a 25-foot cliff. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

She settled on felled trees as the best and most natural option. In February, Radewicz got permission to drop the first round of trees over the jump spot. More trees were felled there in May after teenagers continued to jump, finding gaps in the original barrier. 

So far this year, the Eno River park office has noticed a decrease in emergency calls and injuries.

“It seems to be doing great so far,” Radewicz said. “I have high hopes.”

This is particularly good news given the area’s recent surge in visitors. According to Radewicz, Eno River State Park broke one million visitors for the first time ever last year, ranking it the fourth most popular park among the 41 in the state.

Regulars have noticed how much busier the park is this year. 

“It gets so crowded that it’s impossible to even park there,” said Zachary Keesee, 22, an avid quarry cliff jumper since high school.  “It’s not just locals anymore. People from all over the state come, and nearby college students come in big groups.”

Keesee likes meeting new people and doesn’t mind the increase in visitors, but he’s not sure they’ll continue to come with the jump spot destroyed.

“[The tree barrier] doesn’t only ruin the jump, it ruins the spot where everyone sits and hangs out,” he said.

Park officials briefly tried to ban swimming at the Eno Quarry. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

On recent visits to the Eno Quarry, Keesee has seen groups of teenagers immediately turn around and leave after seeing the jump spot barricaded.

While some visitors are unhappy about the new efforts to block cliff-jumping, other quarry visitors say they were never interested in the jump to begin with.

“We didn’t go there for an adrenaline rush,” said Konsta Anttila, who has been a few times with his wife, Elaina. “It was more about having a really relaxing time in a better alternative to a public pool.”

Jump or no jump, many visitors can still be found at the quarry on a summer afternoon — hiking, picnicking, fishing, reading in hammocks, or floating in the water on colorful rafts.

This is Radewicz’s vision for the Eno Quarry.

If safety issues arise again, she said she’ll go back to the drawing board to find new solutions. But for now, she will dedicate her time to improving the trail around the quarry, making it more sustainable. 

Keesee said there are still some smaller banks to jump from, and he wouldn’t be surprised if some committed visitors attempted to “dodge the trees” and make the big jump anyway, but he will err on the side of caution and instead try to find a new spot. He regularly does this by scouring Google Maps for small bodies of water nearby that seem swimmable and then checking them out in person. Sometimes he scores, sometimes not.

Still, he said, he has yet to find a spot that beats the Eno Quarry.

The quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Even Fox, who was devastated to find his jump ruined, said he will continue to visit the quarry. 

“Even though they messed up my favorite part of the quarry, I will definitely be going back,” Fox said. “It’s still a really nice, peaceful walk through a beautiful part of the woods. Plus, there are waaaay too many memories.”

At top: Felled trees block access to 25-foot cliff at the Eno Quarry. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

For more information about the Eno Quarry, gate times and access points, visit ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/trail/quarry-trail or call (919) 383-1686.

A man, a dog and a scooter

On a Thursday afternoon in Durham, traffic begins to slow on West Main Street as drivers gawk and smile at a cherry red Vespa. Pedestrians turn and pull out their phones to take a photo of the odd spectacle in front of them. They need a picture because otherwise their friends may not believe them. 

This is what they see: A man and a dog riding a scooter. 

The man has Ray-Bans and a thick brown beard. The dog, strapped to the man in a K9 backpack, is a brown and white collie wearing bright red goggles and a colorful tulle collar with sequined stars. 

As they ride, the man stays focused on the road ahead, but the dog, Miss Betty White, seems very aware of the paparazzi. Her tail wags under the nylon pack that secures her to the man’s back. She turns and tilts her head slightly, striking a pose. 

In a year of turmoil and doubt, the sight of a man and a collie on a Vespa evokes a momentary burst of joy. For David Cunningham and his 14-month-old dog, it is just another ride. 

Cunningham, a 43-year-old bartender, grew up in Ohio surrounded by dogs. They were just some of the many beings running around the house with him and his six siblings. Since moving to Durham almost 20 years ago, he had always wanted a dog of his own, but never had the time. That changed when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, West End Billiards, the bar where he works, closed, and Cunningham found himself alone with little to do. He found Miss Betty White in a kennel in Lexington, N.C. 

A registered emotional support dog, Miss Betty, as he calls her, lifted him out of his quarantine blues. Since then, Cunningham’s buddies have told him he’s become a calmer, friendlier guy. 

“She’s the best thing to happen in 2020. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.” He then adds, “But if she did, she would gnaw on it.”

A peek in her closet

Off the scooter, they spend their evenings together, often dining at outdoor restaurants, or just watching “The Call of the Wild” on Cunningham’s couch. 

Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

Along with her diet kibble, Miss Betty gets a steak dinner once a week and a daily dog-friendly ‘pupcake’ or donut. Every Tuesday night the pair hits a local restaurant for date night. While Cunningham orders off the menu, Miss Betty snacks on a dairy-free peanut butter cup from her favorite dog bakery, Oliver’s Collar. 

“She likes Reese’s just like her dad,” Cunningham says.

She earned her name because of her distinctive fur and as a tribute to the legendary actress: “With her big ole white mane like that, I was like, it’s gotta be Betty White. But there’s only one Betty White, so I insist people call her Miss Betty White.”

True to character, Miss Betty gets dressed up before an outing. A peek into her closet reveals dozens of outfits and accessories, complete with sequins, pom-poms, and ruffles. She has a rainbow tutu, denim overalls, and her “naughty Santa Claus outfit,” named because it is slightly too small and “her booty sticks out,” according to Cunningham.

Though luscious, Miss Betty’s shiny coat comes with a price. It has made vacuuming a crucial part of Cunningham’s daily schedule. That, along with her anti-shedding shampoo, ensures that his couch and cargo pants aren’t completely covered in dog hair.

Cunningham walks Miss Betty at least a half-mile four times a day, they go to the dog park once a week, and on the weekends they take hikes around the Eno, the Duke Forest, or the Al Buehler Trail. Miss Betty also has regular doggy-dates with her best friend Jack-Jack (a “little beagle lookin’ thing”) who lives in the neighborhood.

Miss Betty White’s active lifestyle keeps Cunningham in shape. He says he’s lost weight since he’s gotten her and developed a tan from being outdoors so often.

“Damn I’m beautiful”

She isn’t always as sweet as she looks. When she gets restless, Miss Betty can misbehave. On one such occasion a few months ago, she chewed up the molding around Cunningham’s door. 

He put her in a crate when he left home after that – until his guilt became too strong. Then Cunningham discovered the Furbo, a remotely operated camera that lets you see, talk, and toss treats to your dog when you’re not home. It’s even got an infrared camera so he can see Miss Betty in the dark.

In between customers at the bar, Cunningham will open the app to find Miss Betty White “laying up in the window sill like a cat.” He’ll use the microphone to get her attention, and then shoot a few treats onto the rug for her to find. 

Drivers often swerve to take photos of Miss Betty White. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

She has become something of a local celebrity. During their scooter rides, drivers often swerve to take photos to post. To Cunningham’s surprise, Miss Betty’s fan club stretches beyond Durham. He said she’s been recognized in Hillsborough, without the scooter.

For fans who want to keep in touch with Miss Betty, she has her own Instagram page. 

One post reads: “I love my human!!! Steak and eggs for breakfast…was not expecting that.”

“Bathed, nails trimmed, and brushed…damn I’m beautiful!!!!!” says another.

Cunningham grins.“I’m that guy. I used to make fun of those guys, but now I am one…I show my dog off like she’s my girlfriend or one of my kids.”

One post of Miss Betty as a puppy sitting in the grass is Cunningham’s favorite. He’s thinking he may get it as a tattoo.

Their scooter rides always end the same way. After parking the Vespa, Cunningham removes his helmet, exposing his bald head. Miss Betty gives him a joyous lick.

Every ride ends with a joyous lick. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

Schewel won’t seek reelection as mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel announced Thursday that he will not seek a third term.

Saying that he had “struggled mightily with this decision,” he told a news conference that he is ready to focus on family and some new priorities.

“I’ve been in local elected office for 14 of the last 17 years. Frankly that’s enough. . . I’m ready for something new. I’m only 70 years old so I’ve got a lot of future ahead of me.”

He said Durham is in good hands with the new city manager, Wanda Page, and he wants to leave the job to someone else so he can focus on a new granddaughter on the way. “I want to be there to help her parents and to be with her fully and completely and I’m very excited about that.”

He said he’s also “looking forward to having dinner with my wife every night.”

Schewel was first elected mayor in 2017 and won reelection in 2019. He had previously served six years on the City Council. In his campaigns for mayor, he has promised to focus on affordable housing, livable wages, equitable transit systems, police reform and LGBTQ rights.

He is probably best known for leading the city and county’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Durham became the first municipality in North Carolina to adopt a stay-at-home order and mask mandate. 

Schewel is the founder of Indy Week and has taught in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

He said he’s loved his time as mayor. “I’ve been very very lucky in my life. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed, and nothing that I’ve enjoyed as much as this.”

Schewel was asked if he had any advice for his successor. He said, “Durham is a rough and tumble political town, and you’ve really got to be able to roll with it.”

This story will be updated.

Photo at top: Steve Schewel announces he won’t seek reelection in front of City Hall. Photo by Nicole Kagan | The 9th Street Journal

That purple haze from a few streetlights? Just bad bulbs

When some streetlights around North Carolina began mysteriously turning purple this month, residents turned to Reddit for answers. They wondered whether the colored lights were a tribute to Prince, a nod to women’s history month, or the sign of an alien invasion. 

As it turned out, the purple tint was nothing more than some bad light bulbs. 

The streetlights, which are maintained by the power company Duke Energy, changed color due to a manufacturing error with the LED bulbs. It caused their white coating to fade with time, revealing a base purple color underneath.  

Other utilities across the nation using the same stock of lights are experiencing similar issues,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks. “We are working with the vendor to better understand the issue, and they are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen one. Of more than 360,000 LED streetlights in the Carolinas maintained by Duke Energy, only 1.4% of them contain faulty bulbs. 

Still, residents are noticing.

When Shawn Rocco, a multimedia producer at Duke Health, found a cluster of the purple lights near Sherwood Githens Middle School, his first thought was that purple may have been one of the school’s colors.

Rocco was inspired to document the lights in a video set to Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It wasn’t until he posted the video on Reddit and users commented that he came to understand the real reason behind the mysterious tint. It wasn’t what he expected.

“I’m not an electrical engineer … but I would think they would have tested these before they shipped them,” he said.

According to Duke Energy, the defect is limited to one batch of lights that was manufactured in 2018. The bulbs are only now proving to be defective as the white laminate begins to wear off.

Though Rocco speculated that some drivers could be distracted by the purple hue, Duke Energy maintains that with the lights still working, there is no safety concern. Regardless, field crews aim to replace all of the defective bulbs. The problem is, the company doesn’t necessarily know the location of each affected streetlight.

We’re working to replace them as soon as we identify their location. So we do appreciate the public reporting these lights when they see them, even as we are looking for them ourselves,” Brooks said.

Residents can inform Duke Energy of the purple haze – or any defective streetlight – by filling out an online streetlight repair report or by calling the customer service center at 1-800-777-9898.

Some may be hesitant to take action.

Several Redditors seem to prefer the purple hue. As one poetically put it: “the color … blends in better with the hues of the night sky.”

Photo above: The streetlight on Broad Street near West Knox Street has turned purple. Duke Energy says a small percentage of streetlights have bad bulbs that make them take on the purple haze. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal.

How the Blue Corn Cafe survived the year of COVID-19

At the Blue Corn Cafe, co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios keeps a close eye on her servers’ hands. When she trains them, her directions are clear:

“Don’t touch your hair. Don’t touch your eyes. Don’t touch your mouth.” 

In the age of COVID-19, these things matter. From the location of her servers’ hands to the menu, the pandemic has forced Martini-Rios to make adjustments to keep her restaurant afloat, her employees safe and her customers happy. 

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” she said. “This has never happened to any business before in my lifetime.”

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” says co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Martini-Rios and her husband Antonio Rios opened the restaurant on 9th Street in 1997. He is the head chef. They run the business together. Their goal is to provide customers with authentic Latin-American food like slow-roasted pork barbacoa or the house favorite, the Blue Corn quesadilla. 

Everything changed a year ago. As the coronavirus began to spread, Gov. Roy Cooper prohibited indoor dining and Durham shut down. Rios was caught off guard. She had to rethink the way she’d run her restaurant. 

“I knew I had to get back out,” said Martini-Rios, a lively woman who wears her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. “So, how do I make the biggest impact on my community? How can I still bring income in? And how can I try and keep some people employed.”

Almost immediately, Martini-Rios furloughed a majority of her kitchen staff, encouraging them to file for unemployment benefits rather than rely on the restaurant’s suddenly unpredictable takeout revenue.

She often had to improvise. When takeout orders started picking up, her sons pitched in. Her 15-year-old worked the line in the kitchen, and her 20-year-old began working up front waiting tables. Blue Corn also prepared meals to be delivered to workers at Durham hospitals and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, courtesy of the city as well as corporate sponsors and the restaurant itself. 

“We’ve all just taken on different roles,” she said.

The challenging times have meant the cafe had to scale back its ambitious efforts to be a green business. Martini-Rios said they have stopped composting, rethought menu offerings and reverted to plasticware instead of plant-based utensils.

“It’s not a great decision,” she said. “It breaks my heart to hand somebody a plastic straw, but I have to make tough decisions.”

When the state allowed indoor dining to resume June 1, she reopened with new safety measures. She put hand sanitizer bottles throughout the dining room, eucalyptus soap in the bathrooms, and scented candles on the counters to make people feel safe and welcome. Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables along with all other condiments, now available upon request, to limit the number of surfaces customers could touch.

“We have to be particular because people are on edge,” she said. “It’s my job to look at the small things that make you feel comfortable.” 

Blue Corn Cafe’s assistant manager, Mikayla Brooks, works to ensure that customers are aware of the restaurant’s sanitary efforts. 

“I tell the servers to make sure people see that their stuff is being sanitized because if they see it, they know that we’re putting in the time,” she said. “And if we’re doing it when they’re here, they’ll know that we’re doing it when they’re not here too.”

Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables and there’s now plenty of hand sanitizer. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

In previous years, holiday dinners at the Blue Corn Cafe have featured live bands with singers strolling through the restaurant. Now, the music is recorded and comes from the overhead speaker system.

Martini-Rios, who just turned 46, was born in Florida and grew up in between Italy and New Jersey with a family that loved playing soccer and cooking together. As she talks about her childhood, her eyes light up behind her glasses. 

“We’re Italian people,” she said. “Everything we do is based on what we’re eating.”

Martini-Rios went to the University of New Hampshire with pre-med plans. Shortly after graduating, she moved to North Carolina to join a women’s soccer league and started waiting tables at a local restaurant. That’s where she met Antonio, who was the head chef. 

Blue Corn Cafe co-owner and head chef Antonio Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

As her passion for the kitchen simmered again, her plans for medical school faded, and she realized how much she enjoyed the restaurant business. Her life-long love of cooking and Antonio’s mastery of his native Mexican cuisine made them the perfect pair to open Blue Corn Cafe. They’ve never looked back. 

Still, the year of COVID-19 has interrupted some of her dreams. 

Martini-Rios had begun to save money to buy herself a Porsche. Once the pandemic hit, that was put on hold.

“That Porsche went into holding all of this together. My new Porsche is Blue Corn is still open,” she said.

The demands brought on by the pandemic mean Martini-Rios rarely has free time.

“That doesn’t exist right now. We’re understaffed, overworked, underpaid … underappreciated sometimes, too.”

Martini-Rios feels under-appreciated primarily by Durham officials.  

Though she was awarded a $10,000 grant from the city on July 2, she was unable to use it in the way she had hoped. She wanted to use the money to build a back deck and a seating area along 9th Street, but the permits that she applied for were all denied by the city, leaving Blue Corn Cafe with insufficient COVID-safe outdoor dining options.  

Instead, the money went towards the installation of HEPA air filters throughout the restaurant, personal protection equipment for the Blue Corn Cafe staff members, and to design a new online ordering platform. 

“The money was well-spent,” Martini-Rios said. “But that grant did not keep me open. If (the city) thinks that’s the case they’re sorely mistaken.”

Martini-Rios is grateful for the support of Blue Corn’s customers. As vaccinations increase throughout Durham, she is eager to welcome more of them back into her restaurant.

“When people are inoculated, they can start to get out and help these small businesses get back on their feet. They are going to be such a vital part of our resurrection of this city.”

The Blue Corn Cafe. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Photo at top: As the coronavirus shutdown disrupted her business, Blue Corn Cafe co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios adapted, trying to keep as many workers employed as she could. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Durham Bulls Opening Day delayed until May

Durham Bulls fans will have to wait an extra month for Opening Day. 

The team announced Wednesday the 2021 season will be delayed by about four weeks from its original April 6 starting date.

Major League Baseball officials said the delay would improve the safety for everyone involved. It will allow more players to get vaccinated against the coronavirus before the season begins and allow more fans to feel comfortable filling the stands.

In a statement, Mike Birling, the Bulls vice president of baseball operations, broke the news to fans.

“While this isn’t the news we wanted to hear, we are in agreement the health and safety of our fans, players and staff are of utmost importance,” he said. 

The Triple-A Bulls will now start their season about the same time in May as Double-A and Class A teams. While no new date has been announced, team officials said they will provide fans more information when it becomes available.

Durham Bulls hope state officials will allow 2,500 fans on Opening Day

Updated: Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he was easing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, which should let the Bulls have 2,500 to 3,000 fans per game. “We are very happy with the governor’s decision,” said Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations. “We were currently at just over 700, so to be able to jump to 2,500 – 3,000 will really be beneficial to our business.”

By Nicole Kagan and Claire Kraemer

When the Durham Bulls open their season April 6, team officials hope that the state will allow them to fill their ballpark to 25% of its 10,000-seat capacity. But for now, COVID-19 rules permit just 7%.

In an interview with The 9th Street Journal and in a virtual town hall with fans, team officials said Tuesday they are taking special measures to assure fans’ safety for the Bulls’ first season since minor league baseball was shut down by the pandemic last year. And they hope state rules will soon permit more fans.

Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations, said an announcement about greater capacity could come as early as Wednesday.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said earlier this week that the stadium’s capacity would be determined by state guidelines in April, but that, “I think by that time we will be doing a lot better.”

He said he was hopeful that “they’ll be able to open with a decent amount of fans there.”

Chip Allen, the Bulls assistant general manager for sales, said the team has taken many precautions to keep fans safe. The ballpark has also gone cashless and ticket sales are now completely digital. The ticket takers that used to greet fans at the stadium’s entrances will be replaced by free-standing kiosks that allow fans to scan their tickets themselves.

The Bulls will play only five other teams to minimize travel and there will not be any playoffs or an all-star game.

Merchandise and concession stands will still be open for fans looking to buy a baseball cap or a footlong hot dog, but there will be more mobile ordering so fans don’t have to stand in line.

Even with these changes, the Bulls acknowledge that some fans may be uncomfortable returning to a stadium, particularly early in the season. So they’ve offered season ticket holders flexibility, allowing them to bypass the first couple months of the season in exchange for credits later on. 

“Our long-term goal is to have our fans for life,” Allen said. “So we’ve got to do right by them now.”

The team is well-known for entertainment and fan contests on the field between innings. But given that fans are no longer allowed on the field, entertainment will be pre-recorded and fan contests will take place around the concourse. 

Still, with games on the schedule and players on the field, team officials are eager for Bulls fans to return to the stadium.

“We can’t wait to see you guys,” Birling told fans in the town hall. “We can’t wait to get that first pitch.”

Photo above, Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull is ready for the new season (Team photo)

Mandy Cohen Day … without Mandy Cohen

Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, was “Secretary Mandy Cohen Day” in Durham. But Dr. Cohen, the North Carolina secretary of health and human services, didn’t come to Durham, nor could she stand before the City Council as members honored her with a key to the city. 

It marked the first time someone has received a key to the city without actually being in the city. Quite appropriately, Cohen was following her own COVID-19 safety directives to avoid indoor gatherings (the City Council meets by Zoom these days). That directive and many others from the state have surely saved countless lives, which has prompted considerable praise for Cohen’s handling of the pandemic as North Carolina’s top health official.

During the meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel honored Cohen for her “exceptional service to our city and its people.” 

“We are only able to present the key to you virtually tonight,” Schewel said. “We do have a real key to give, but we’re following your COVID-safe instructions.”

Schewel said the key will be kept at City Hall along with the proclamation in “beautiful physical form.”  She’ll receive both once city officials determine it is safe to return to City Hall for mundane duties such as mailing packages.

After the meeting, Schewel said he was sorry she could not attend. “I would love to have shaken her hand. I would love for her to have actually heard a crowd of people rising and applauding.”

Cohen, who took part in the meeting while sitting with her family by the stone fireplace of their Raleigh home, said she felt both lucky and saddened to have received the honor without leaving her front door. 

“It’s amazing to be in your own home and still be connected to everyone,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “But, we miss being in person, as everyone does. There’s an intangible aspect there … we try to replace it, but it’s never really the same.”

Cohen said she was grateful she could share the moment with her husband and young daughters.

“It’s been a hard year not just on me, but on all of our families, so it was nice to be able to include them in the moment and for them to hear how my work and our team’s work has been impacting the state.” 

Cohen’s key recognizes her response to COVID-19, but she has other public health responsibilities. Since her appointment by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, Cohen has worked to combat substance abuse, raise mental health awareness and close the health care coverage gap. She has earned Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership in Public Health Practice Award and been named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare.

“She is leading probably the most difficult, complex department that we have in state government,” Cooper said during the meeting. “And I’m grateful for her everyday.”

Cohen said she is eager to visit the city.

“We spend, as a family, a fair amount of time playing in Durham,” she said. “And we look forward to being able to do that again.”

In photo above: The City Council honored Mandy Cohen, lower left, during its Zoom meeting on Jan. 19.