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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

Boutique furniture store with loyal following powers through the pandemic

Business has returned to normal for the boutique furniture store Vintage Home South. But when the pandemic struck in March 2020, owners Jennifer and Rich Devlin were not sure their Ninth Street store would survive the month.

January and February 2020 had been their best start to a year since they opened their doors in 2016. So a 50% drop in revenue in April, their second-worst month ever, hit hard.

“We’re thinking, ‘Holy crap! What are we going to do and how long is this going to go on?’” Rich Devlin recalled.

They had cash to survive four months only. If that ran out, they would consider selling rather than going into credit card debt, as they had done to get started.

It would take decisive action to stay afloat in the “refined casual” furniture business. A ramped-up focus on customer service and sharp upticks in the housing and home décor markets have done it for them – so far.

Last spring, as soon as they could leave their house, “we would go to the store five or six days a week and go, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to make money today?’” Jennifer Devlin said.

Mary Moyer, the shop’s only full-time employee, saw the Devlins’ drive. “They weren’t gonna sit around and see what COVID had in store,” Moyer said. “They got busy, and they did a website.” The new online shopping site attracted new customers from all over the country and now contributes 5% of total revenue.

The Devlins also started making Instagram videos. There were instructional furniture videos, such as “Wall Décor Hanging 101.” Others were light-hearted; one of them featured their one-take singing to announce the website launch, with Rich playing guitar and their dog sitting on Jennifer’s lap. Old and new customers watched.

Every day, Jennifer and Rich Devlin asked themselves: “Okay, what are we going to do to make money today?” Photo by Samuel Rabinowitz

Rhonda Fawzi, a Wake Forest resident, learned about Vintage Home South from a WRAL news feature when lockdowns began. Seeing Jennifer on TV, she thought, “I need to support this chick. I’d probably like her. She’d be my friend.”

A patron of local boutiques, Fawzi made her initial shopping trip to Vintage Home South via video call, something Jennifer started to try to stay afloat.

“I probably bought $100 worth of stuff from her, and she drove it to my house!” Fawzi said. “Doesn’t that strike you as something?”

Jennifer and Rich Devlin had met in 1998 while they both worked at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in San Francisco in the catering and banquet department – where, as Jennifer put it, “you dazzle them with customer service.” This “lost art” of customer service underpinned their founding of their own business.

Acquiring a new customer in Fawzi helped. But an existing customer base pulled Vintage Home South through the pandemic. Customers have continued to purchase despite delivery delays, sometimes waiting up to 24 weeks for a piece that would normally take four, largely due to raw material shortages and understaffed production lines.

Some have followed Jennifer’s interior decorating design consultations from in-person to video-call format. The consultations provide approximately 20% of total revenue and have been important for client relations, leading to more furniture purchases and repeat customers.

In some ways, lockdown even helped business.

“Now everybody’s trapped at home,” Jennifer said. “Because people were fed up with sitting on uncomfortable furniture, they came in over the summer and bought all this furniture.”

Her observations match the recent spike in the home décor market due to work-from-home. Salesforce’s 2020 Q2 Shopping Index noted a 134% increase in digital sales of home goods. Upward trends in home sales have also increased business. For example, Fawzi is using Vintage Home South to furnish her new Wake Forest home.

The new business made September 2020 the second-best month in Vintage Home South’s five-year history, and business has been solid since then. But the Devlins still worry about continued effects of the pandemic.

“All of the unpredictability that’s thrown in from this otherwise not normal stuff going on, that’s been the biggest stress,” Rich Devlin said. “How long is this going to go on? Is there ever going to be a regular normal again?”

9th Street Journal reporter Samuel Rabinowitz can be reached at

Top: When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Jennifer and Rich Devlin were not sure their Ninth Street store, Vintage Home South, would make it to April. Photo by Samuel Rabinowitz

Bars are back in Durham. How did they survive?

People fill the outdoor seating along Durham’s sidewalks downtown, on Ninth Street and everywhere in between. Friends dance with beers in hand. Music blares out, permeating the street. The night seems unrecognizable compared to its hard lockdown a year ago. 

Life is back at Durham bars.

Gov. Roy Cooper eased COVID-19 restrictions in late March, raising indoor bar capacity from 30% to 50% and lifting an 11 p.m. alcohol curfew. Before that, many bars went a full year without significant income and faced harsher limitations than other establishments, like restaurants and breweries. 

To keep taps flowing, some bar owners got creative. They changed menus, set up shop outside and asked regulars for support. But not every bar made it, and the ones that have stayed open aren’t all following COVID-19 restrictions. One Durham nightspot – Shooters II – has recently drawn official complaints about the breaking rules, city officials say.

When the pandemic hit, Kingfisher cocktail bar owners Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker recognized that restaurants could open up much earlier than bars under state health rules. So, they became a restaurant, transforming their parking lot into a burger joint, QueenBurger, in August.

Hunky Dory, a hybrid retail and bar space on Ninth Street, increased outdoor seating to accommodate beer-hungry Durhamites. Manager Taylor Bates said that by creating more standing space and spots outdoors and staying vigilant with cleaning and distancing, the bar has been able to bring back much of its customer base. New drinkers are coming in too.

Many of our regulars have been vaccinated, and our employees as well. And that gives everyone another layer of peace of mind,” Bates said. “It’s been so nice to have people come in and start having this normalcy back in their life.”

Crowdsourcing and fundraising have also saved bars. The Pinhook created a Patreon, where bar owners and employees sell art and host online events, like karaoke. Arcana Bar and Lounge opted for a similar strategy, selling tickets to virtual poetry shows, bi-weekly art shows, and recipe cards. 

“The Patreon contributions, combined with other employment, will hopefully be enough to allow us to reopen when it is right to reopen, without taking on crippling personal debt,” Arcana owners Lindsey Andrews and Erin Karcher wrote on Patreon in January. Andrews and Karcher are beginning a soft reopen for Arcana, according to an April 12 post.

Durhamites drink inside Flying Bull Beer Company, a Ninth Street spot with front and back patios that opened up during the pandemic. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Nicole Thompson has seen a significant increase in people venturing downtown as the states slowly lightens rules.

“It’s obviously been gradual and our nightlife looks a little different right now. People aren’t staying out as late, and they’re still wearing masks. But, people seem to be more comfortable,” Thompson said. “People want to be out again. They missed downtown, they’ve missed the places that they haven’t been able to visit in over a year.”

Running dry

For some bars, though, crowdsourcing and creativity weren’t enough. The Atomic Fern, which used to be located on Parrish Street downtown, fell victim to the pandemic’s financial burden. Despite Twitch streams, Facebook lives, and a GoFundMe started by a group of bar regulars, the business couldn’t pay rent. A landlord evicted The Atomic Fern in February, and the bar won’t be reopening.

Owner Kevin Slater pins the closure on state and city apathy. For bars like his with no outdoor seating and little indoor capacity, the government didn’t provide enough financial relief and legal support, he said

“Even if we were able to open up at 30% capacity indoors, that still ends up being only eight people plus staff. That doesn’t pay the bills,” Slater said. “We didn’t want to reopen. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, so we knew that it felt irresponsible to reopen.”

Slater filed a lawsuit against Durham and North Carolina for damages of $25,000 in January. Though he doesn’t anticipate his lawsuit going anywhere in court, he hopes to make a statement and point out the frustrations of small business owners. He said he feels that he and the bar community were ignored. 

“The government is saying now ‘Look we’re letting you reopen and now you can make money and you can pay your landlord,’ but, really, how sustainable is that? Bottom line: we’re all going to still be in debt,” Slater said. 

Stepping out of line 

Though most bars have been compliant with COVID-19 safety guidelines, Assistant City Attorney Anna Davis said some may have broken the rules. Davis said her office has only received a COVID-19 citizen complaint-driven report for one spot: Shooters, a favorite bar of Duke undergraduates.

Davis received multiple citizen complaints about unmasked crowds at Shooters in November. In response, she sent owner Kim Cates a letter right before Thanksgiving asking her to comply with COVID-19 health restrictions. 

After that, Davis said complaints mostly decreased. On April 5, however, Davis’s office received a report from the Durham Health Department citing violations at Shooters. The Duke Student Government president and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel expressed concerns too, she said. When law enforcement visited Shooters a week later to observe, though, they saw no restrictions violated, Davis said.

“It tends to be a game of Whack-a-Mole with these people,” Davis said. “They step out of line, but then once there are complaints, people get back in compliance.”

Schewel said nightlife crowds — specifically at Shooters — are one of the city’s greatest concerns as new variants of COVID-19 start spreading in Durham.

They’re loosening restrictions, but it’s critical that the city stays vigilant,” Schewel said, citing large crowds of indoor, unmasked young people. 

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at

At top: Mask-wearing bar-goers drink inside Boxcar, a Geer Street joint where visitors can play arcade games. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Downtown building still booms

If you haven’t visited downtown Durham much during the pandemic, here’s an update: the building boom did not stop while you were gone.

On Rigsbee Avenue, white cement trucks, pick ups, orange cones and workers cluster around a half-finished apartment building, its towering shadow covering the whole block. Next to American Tobacco Campus, yellow cranes sit near the early stages of three new buildings of commercial and residential space. Nearly an entire block off Fernway Avenue near West Village is vacant and fenced off, ready for more apartments.

“The qualities that have made Durham attractive to investors in the past remain through the pandemic,” said Bo Dobrzenski, senior development services manager of the Durham City-County Planning Department.

An apartment building construction site on the corner of Rigsbee Avenue and West Corporation Street is humming, despite vast economic disruption from the pandemic. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Most construction projects in the works in Durham fall into two categories: residential and industrial.

Durham residential construction skyrocketed over the past few decades, and it is expected to continue. From 2010 to 2016, more than 10,000 new housing units were added in Durham, according to the City-County Planning Department. And, over the next 25 years, the county’s population will grow to almost 450,000 according to the Durham-Chapel Hill- Carrboro 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, . 

A view of an apartment building under construction at East Pettigrew and Dillard streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

While some affordable housing such as Willard Street Apartments by the Durham Station Transportation Center is getting built, many residential projects are luxury apartment complexes, such as the Terraces at Morehead Hill.

Commercial construction is second to residential construction throughout Durham, said Dobrzenski. Although there has been an obvious decrease in the need for office space since people are working from home, Durham is still inviting to growing industries like the biological life sciences, Dobrzenski said. 

“Bio companies that are looking to grow – coming from New York, Boston, California – are still seeing Durham as a spot for great opportunities,” said Andre Pettigrew, director of the Durham Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “The cost of investing and the value that you receive remains very strong here.” 

During a Saturday shift, a worker hauls material from the Rigsbee Avenue site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The wider Triangle still has appeal to expanding businesses. Companies that have been developing and distributing coronavirus vaccines are active here, for instance, including ApiJect Systems Corp, which recently announced it will build a large factory for vaccine production in Raleigh. 

In addition, information technology, network technology and cybersecurity technology companies continue to invest and build in this area,  Pettrigrew said.

“We’re a highly educated area with great technology research infrastructure, both private sector, as well as governmental. The business fundamentals here are solid,” Pettigrew said.

There is a risk of small businesses being left out of the downtown Durham development boom. As large companies are still investing downtown, many small businesses are struggling, Pettigrew stressed.

“Our small business, especially those run by women and people of color, have been hit the hardest. What our community has to do is try to recalibrate and get small businesses back in alignment to help them grow,” Pettigrew said.

For instance, Durham has a very vibrant scene of Black-owned businesses, yet people of color are less likely to receive COVID-19 grants and aid, according to the North Carolina Justice Center. As a result, the Durham community has to work to ensure that this investment and growth downtown can bolster small business owners continuing to struggle to stay afloat, Pettigrew said.

Economic development experts such as Pettigrew hope that construction surge will bring opportunities for smaller, local construction businesses, for example.

“We have to ensure that these opportunities are connected to our small business community. And if we aren’t, we won’t realize this city’s full economic potential, ” Pettigrew said.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at

At top: This apartment building in the making on East Pettigrew Street is expected to contain more than 200 apartments. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Changing things up to keep business alive during a pandemic

After entering Black Wall Street Barber Shop, it’s hard to know where to focus. Colorful art from around Durham covers the walls. A boisterous radio interview with Anthony Anderson booms over speakers. Then, there’s the soft, constant buzz of Akili Hester’s razor as he cuts and sculpts clients’ hair. 

In short: it’s local and it’s lively. Hester, the shop’s owner, worked hard in the four years he’s owned Black Wall Street Barber Shop to make it that way. Yet Hester has had to work even harder to stay in business through the coronavirus epidemic.

Trying to stay afloat was pretty difficult when you’re dealing with half of what you’re used to making and you still have to cover all of the same bills,” said Hester, whose shop is on Fayetteville Street near East Lakeville Avenue. 

The pandemic took things from nearly everyone. But it’s hit some Americans harder than others. 

A survey by a national business mentor group found that Black-owned small business owners were 90.7% more likely than white small business owners to have a direct relationship with someone infected by COVID-19. And despite seeking financial assistance at much higher rates, Black business owners were significantly less likely to receive both government and private funding, the SCORE survey, published in October, found. 

Akili Hester at work in his vibrant barbershop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

To make it through, Hester has applied his own creativity and some advice from the Durham Business and Professional Chain. “The Chain” has worked with and aided the Triangle Black business owners since 1937.

Hester has unique ties to The Chain. His father, Larry Hester, was once the organization’s president. And his stepmother, Denise Hester, chairs its communications committee. They founded M & M Real Estate Development and Consulting together.

The nonprofit ended in-person meetings once COVID-19 became a threat. But it continued with its outreach, mostly with a newsletter and a heavy social media presence. Through these media tactics, said Denise Hester, The Chain has been able to share grant opportunities and general business advice.

“On our Facebook page, we try to publish uplifting articles about what others are doing and service the information about what has been successful for other businesses,” she said. 

The Chain has also counseled local business owners to stay connected with customers even as the pandemic pushed them apart. 

Get in touch with your customer base,” was part of the guidance, Denise Hester said. “Business owners don’t always have time to mine accurate information of their customers, but maybe now with this time, they can really look at their analytics and see where their money is coming from.” 

Hester works within sight of a bull in a Durham city flag mask that Brandon Hampton painted inside the shop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The Chain helped Akili Hester become aware of his customer’s needs, he said, and think critically about ways to improve his business.

For the barber, who shut down his business in early March after his wife caught COVID, some adjustments were obvious. That included mandatory mask wearing and limiting how many people can be in the shop at once.

By the time he reopened in June, he had lost about 50 percent of his clientele because many  customers were too scared to leave their houses, he said. Pre-pandemic, Hester would probably be cutting “10 heads,” a day, he said. These days he usually cuts a fraction of those. 

Seeing he needed secondary income, Hester started a side T-shirt and clothing shop called Bull City Merch, which exists online and in his shop. He designs the shirts himself, often adding text that promotes community unity.

“I started to notice that I would cut someone’s hair, and that would be about $20, but then they would buy a few T-shirts and that would be like $40. Even now, as business is starting to pick back up, selling the shirts has really helped me keep the lights on,” Hester said.

He markets the shirts to all of his customers, including those who can’t yet return to his shop. 

“I had the idea for the “Bull City Strong” T-shirts even before COVID, but I think they work even more now,” Hester said.

Akili Hester, flanked by Durham musicians, throws up his fist in a video boosting Bull City Merch.

He  filmed a short music video showing them off. After years doing video work for the North Carolina rap music scene, Hester hired music artists to help with the video, including members of The Materials, a Durham-based soul group. 

Their words echo Hester’s message of unity. He and the others proudly throw up their fists and tell their audience to “buy black.”

The T-shirt designs have been received well, consistently selling 10 to 15 shirts a week,  said Hester,  who gives barbershop clients discounts.

Sometimes Hester’s creativity sparks ideas in others. Local muralist Brandon Hampton was so inspired by T-shirt designs that he painted one inside the barbershop. It’s a bull wearing a mask that looks like the Durham city flag – a physical manifestation of the “Bull City Covid Era” messaging that runs throughout Hester’s merchandise.

Looking forward, things seem to be looking up for Hester. He’s hoping to get started on more video projects for his YouTube channel, including a project to interview Black small business owners in Durham. 

He’s also working on opening a new barbershop near where Black Wall Street Barber Shop stands. He intends to sell Bull City merch there too.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you got to play a part in your own rescue,” Hester said.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at

At top: Akili Hester outside Black Wall Street Barber Shop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teens escape being stuck at home by building digital birthday bashes

In June, a mother posted a plea for help on the Nextdoor neighborhood social media app. How was she to plan a 10th birthday party for her son in the middle of a pandemic?

Since you can build nearly anything in Minecraft, Harrison and Sophie Stanley decided to build birthday parties. Photo by Henry Haggart

She noted her kid’s love for Minecraft, a sandbox video game in which players can mine, build on, and create on an infinite 3D terrain.

After reading this, Jennifer Stanley approached her children, Harrison and Sophie, to see if they had any ideas. They did, and three months later they are running a business called Digicraft, a virtual startup with 10 percent of profits going to a local food bank.

At a time when there are constant think-piece articles and Instagram trends focused on adults tapping into their creativity during COVID quarantine, you don’t hear much about kids. But they too are trying to gain back what has been taken away, including the ability to socialize safely.

“I think it’s one of those things that lets you forget what’s going on in the world, which I think a lot of people need. It gets you out of the work and lets you focus on just creating something new,” Harrison said.

The teenagers created an intricate scavenger hunt in one of their first Minecraft birthday party experiences. Photo by Henry Haggart

After their mother asked, Harrison, 17, and Sophie, 14, put their Minecraft building skills to work. Over the course of a few weekends, they created an interactive “realm” on the Minecraft video game server that multiple players could log into together and enjoy.

The two split up the construction work. Their first world was zombie-themed. Players could “spawn” there and read a sign explaining that zombies had invaded the place and villagers needed players to make it safe again. They built a scavenger hunt for the players, ending with fireworks, music and birthday cake.

After testing each other’s sections and checking with the kid’s parents, they opened the world to their client, and watched him and his friends explore.

“It was so cool watching this kid and his friends interact with, and love this thing that we made,” Sophie said. “And it was so special that we just wanted to keep doing it.” 

Thus, the two decided to build a business. Over the past two and a half months, they have created eight worlds for birthday parties, for kids ages 7 to 12 years old in Orange and Durham counties and out of state. 

Every weekend, the two would huddle around the desktop in the bonus room at home and plan, spitballing ideas and using teamwork to fashion new and unique worlds for each party.

“The cool thing is that we don’t really have any specific plans. We just sit together and shoot off ideas of what looks cool and seems like it will be a fun experience,” Harrison said.

Harrison patrols the worlds they create through an Xbox. Sophie uses an iPad. Photo by Henry Haggart

Using their respective strengths and creativity, they divide the business-side and creative-side of planning for each party. And of course, as with all siblings, collaborating brings its own challenges.

“There’s some bickering, of course, and they have different creative visions. And so, there have been a couple of times where I’ve had to say, ‘you guys need to learn how to critique each other’,” Stanley said. 

At the same time, Digicraft provides a space for Harrison and Sophie to learn about cooperation, creativity and self-discipline, the sort of things they’d normally be getting in non-virtual school.  

“I think that as a parent you see video games as purely an escape,” Stanley said. “Suddenly, this was an opportunity for kids who have been socially distanced to get together virtually, and for my kids to see themselves as mentors for them.”

The two charge $100 for one hour of playtime in their Minecraft worlds, with 10 percent of the profits going to Feeding the Carolinas, a nonprofit network of food banks in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Though the two started (virtual) school at East Chapel Hill High School in August, they still run their business, even with honors classes, college applications, and extracurriculars. Where for some this might be an added stressor, for Harrison and Sophie, it’s a needed refuge.

“Kids aren’t meant to stay home all the time; they’re meant to scream and shout and chase and flirt and all that stuff and it’s like they can’t do any of that,” their mother said. “We need something to replace what we’ve lost. And if we can create it ourselves, there’s a sense of accomplishment and it’s therapeutic.”

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at

At top: Sophie and Harrison Stanley sit side by side at a desk in front of a TV while they work. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham launches new mask campaign supporting local businesses

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, masks of many colors, patterns and materials have become ubiquitous — or at least, they’re supposed to be. 

In April, Mayor Steve Schewel mandated masks in public, making Durham the first city in North Carolina to do so. In early July, the city required all businesses to post signage telling their customers to wear masks in an effort to slow the rise of COVID-19 cases. 

Now, the city and county have jointly launched a campaign in an effort to promote local businesses and unify the city around wearing masks to protect each other, called Durham Has You Covered.

“Durham Has You Covered is one part of a larger strategy for helping residents comply with local face covering orders,” said Ryan Smith, Innovation Team Project manager for the city and a member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force. “We want to make it easier for residents and small businesses to find face coverings and at the same time we also want to support our local producers.”

Smith added that there is a certain level of accountability and heightened quality of products when people are able to buy local. 

The city and county are working with Cover Durham, a community health coalition, on the campaign. The initiative provides the latest federal and state recommendations on personal protective equipment and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Durham Has You Covered also provides contact information for 20 local mask suppliers, in order to help support businesses that may be struggling during the pandemic. 

Megan Eilenberger is one of those business owners. She enjoys sewing in her free time, and, like many others, began making masks for friends and family in March once the pandemic started getting worse. 

“We experienced job loss in our family due to COVID,” she said. “In order to somewhat replace some of that income, I started to charge.”

Megan Eilenberger is selling her homemade masks through Durham’s new campaign. Photo courtesy Megan Eilenberger

Eilenberger said she has already sold around 400 colorful, custom masks for $8 each and donated 50 others. She is hopeful this campaign will boost her business. 

Other companies in Durham have pivoted to making masks. Talib Graves-Manns’ luggage manufacturing company, Life on Autopilot, started losing business because of the pandemic.

“We’re not selling much luggage,” he said. “So we repurposed our sewers to do masks.”

He said they manufacture around 5,000 masks a week, which are being sold in bulk to medical suppliers and bodegas in Durham. He hopes to get a larger deal with the city to grow this new business, called the Masked Buddha. 

Another supplier is Ngozi Design, a 10-year-old African-inspired clothing and graphic design company run by Andrea Carter. Ngozi has sold over 3,000 custom face coverings in 23 states since the start of the pandemic. Although it’s too early to tell how Durham’s campaign has impacted her sales, she attributes her success to word-of-mouth, her website and this new initiative. Her team “can’t make them fast enough,” she said.

“I’m always encouraged that I can do something to help,” she added. “I’m just grateful that I can make the masks, and hopefully they help men, women and children.”

Some of Andrea Carter’s mask designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

Smith, from the city, said the campaign has emphasized businesses owned by people of color. “I think that it is putting our equity values into action and into practice to lift those historically marginalized businesses up, and we feel that that is always important,” he said. 

The new campaign is one of many strategies the city is using to ensure residents and city staff stay safe during the pandemic. 

In conjunction with mandates, the city is printing posters in Spanish and English and distributing them to local businesses, along with mask sets that they can hand out to customers.

The city, county and Durham Public Schools have contributed $67,000 to Cover Durham to purchase and distribute about 4,000 masks. Duke University also matched that donation in mid-July, and the city hopes to use it to purchase additional masks in the next few weeks, said Smith. 

Eilenberger said initiatives like this have made her proud to be a Durhamite. 

“I see people who post outside of Durham in neighboring counties who complain about residents not wearing masks and I can always comment on social media and say, ‘well, you’re clearly not living in Durham because that’s not the case here,” she said.

If you’re in need of a mask, you can order through the Durham Has You Covered website. Local businesses or individuals interested in donating masks can contact The Scrap Exchange.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at

Top photo: Andrea Carter, who runs mask supplier Ngozi Designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs extended stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers Saturday as local officials moved to stem the rapidly growing number of coronavirus cases in Durham, which reached 103 on Friday.

The new county measures broaden a citywide order that Mayor Steve Schewel implemented two days ago and adds new requirements for local businesses and childcare facilities. The county order goes into effect Sunday at 5 p.m. 

With Schewel’s consent and collaboration, Jacobs said the new rules extend stay-at-home and workplace requirements to parts of the county outside the city’s jurisdiction, including the Durham side of Research Triangle Park.

The 13-page order points to a federal list of critical infrastructure sectors to guide local businesses as they decide who should and should not be going to work. It also lays out  new sanitation and social distancing requirements for local businesses, as well as residents. These requirements include mandatory temperature checks for all employees at the start of each workday, maintaining six feet between all individuals, thoroughly washing hands as frequently as possible, and prohibiting the sharing of tools or workplace instruments.

“It really boils down to personal responsibility and just responsibility of all of our employers,” Jacobs said of the new requirements.

The order asks that childcare facilities abide by more stringent guidelines. Specifically, all childcare must be carried out in specific, unchanging groups. That means the same adult must be with the same group of children each day. These groups also are required to remain in separate rooms throughout the day, and they are prohibited from mixing.

Professional services such as legal, accounting, insurance and real estate also have strict new guidelines. All services are required to be carried out by a single individual, and may only take place if they are necessary for a closing sale. The ordinance prohibits in-person showings and open houses, but Jacobs encouraged real estate agents to take advantage of online tools like Facebook Live events for showing houses.

Jacobs emphasized that the county rules are more restrictive than a statewide order announced Friday by Gov. Roy Cooper. In order to most accurately target Durham County’s virus loci, Jacobs emphasized that local ordinances and rules take precedence over those in the state order, which takes effect Monday.

Jacobs acknowledged the inconsistencies in limits on social gatherings in different places, as some prohibit gatherings of any size, while others prohibit gatherings of more than two people. As of right now, both the state and local ordinances prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. However, Jacobs said this rule does not mean people should be going out of their way to socialize. “You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” she insisted.

Should the gathering limit prove too large in the coming weeks, the County Board will work with the mayor and county Health Director to amend the social gathering guidelines. 

Jacobs explained the new rules in a Facebook video from the County Board’s chamber Saturday afternoon. She pushed through a cough throughout the 40-minute announcement, but assured the audience that it was allergies, not COVID-19. She said she tested negative for the virus, and had practiced self-quarantining while waiting for her results.

Jacobs signed off by echoing an optimistic message from Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: “To our beloved Bull City, we can do this, we are strong, we are in this together.”

At top: County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures Saturday. Facebook video image by 9th Street Journal

Newly jobless hit bumps filing for unemployment pay

Now that state and local government orders have shuttered restaurants, bars, gyms and many other businesses, the ranks of people laid off in North Carolina keeps swelling. 

Gov. Roy Cooper has made moves to simplify signing up for unemployment benefits. But people trying to get that job done say glitches with a state website can make it tough to get started. 

Alexis Graves waited tables at Durham’s celebrated Italian restaurant Gocciolina before she was let go on March 17. Though Gocciolina remains open for take-out, without floor service, Graves and all other waiters are out of work.

When Graves got word of the layoffs from her manager, she immediately started filing for unemployment, a process that can be done online. She logged into the state website around 3:30 p.m, she said.

“I sat down and started trying,” Graves said. “It was so slow, and then things started timing out.”

Graves finally gave up and restarted her application later in the evening. She was able to finish around 1 a.m., she said.

“It was seriously glitchy,” Graves said. “The website doesn’t function well, even in the best of times. But right now, it’s frightening.”

Almost 220,000 North Carolinians filed for unemployment between March 16 and 26, according to Larry Parker, spokesperson for the Division of Employment Security. That’s 60,000 more than all the unemployment claims filed in North Carolina throughout 2019. 

The Division of Employment Security recently posted 50 new jobs it will fill to handle the influx of claims, Parker said. One listing, for a call center representative at the division, notes that applicants can expect to take around 60-80 calls per day.

But calling to file an unemployment claim can be even slower than filing online, according to some people recently made jobless.

Ashley Zepeda at her former job tending bar at Bartaco in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of Zepeda

Ashley Zepeda was laid off from her job as a bartender at Raleigh’s Bartaco on Monday. When she tried to file for unemployment online, the website kept crashing, she said. So, she tried calling the department. 

“I got an automated message,” Zepeda said. “It’s a lady who says, ‘I’m sorry, there’s too many people calling. Try again later, goodbye.’ Then it hangs up on you.”

Zepeda kept trying the state website, but it continued to crash. “You can’t do it online, and you can’t do it on the phone,” she said.

Complaints about the situation are showing up on social media, including posts on Durham’s Reddit thread. People across North Carolina have reported a glitchy unemployment website and long wait times on the phone. 

The Division of Employment Security acknowledges the issues with their phone lines, writing online “our customer call center is experiencing high call volume” and urging people to use their online system to avoid waiting on hold.

“We had some initial web issues last week but upgraded our server capacity and that has helped tremendously,” wrote Parker in an email. “We are asking that people make sure they walk through the process — not run.”

Last week, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore created a remote legislative committee to address the impacts of coronavirus. That group drafted a bill, named the COVID-19 Response Act, to finalize the changes the governor had already made to unemployment benefits. 

Those changes include removing the one-week waiting period, giving employers tax credits for paying into unemployment funds, and allowing employees with reduced work hours to apply for benefits. The committee meets again next Tuesday. 

After Graves finished her unemployment application online, she waited four days for confirmation that it had been received. A week later, she found her weekly award amount lacking, she said.

As a waitress, Graves’ benefits are based only on her hourly wage, not including tips. That makes her award amount lower than it should be if it included her true income, she said.

“I’m trying to decide whether to dispute it,” Graves said. “But I probably won’t. It’ll just make the whole thing take longer.”

She said she doesn’t want to try using the website again or calling the Division of Employment Security.

“I’d rather just have something, even if it’s barely enough to live on,” she said.

Graves had some words of advice for anyone trying to apply for unemployment benefits in the coming weeks.

“Don’t try to call them. Don’t try to do it through mail. Don’t use your browser’s back button,” she warned. “And make sure everything you put in the first time is accurate, because if you have to edit something, it probably won’t work.”

At top: Unemployment filings in North Carolina spiked in March. Chart by Cameron Beach

Durham owner to Gov. Cooper: Food, drink industry needs more aid

After ordering restaurants and bars across North Carolina today to shut down all but take-out service, Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plan to support the restaurant industry: easier access to unemployment benefits.

But a Durham bar owner has organized a drive to tell Cooper that the industry needs much more to survive efforts to contain COVID-19.

Lindsey Andrews, co-owner of Arcana bar in Durham, posted a letter online urging Cooper to provide more aid during the coronavirus closures.

As of early Tuesday evening, over 160 restaurant owners, bartenders, and other food service workers across the Triangle had signed on.

“We, as employees and owners, will lose significant income or be laid off,” the letter states. “We will not survive without immediate and decisive action from the government.”

The letter calls on Cooper to support unemployment benefits for all workers, eliminate payroll taxes and mandate rent, loan and utility cuts for businesses and employees harmed by the closures.

In a press conference today announcing the closures, Cooper discussed unemployment, promising that the state will remove barriers such as the one-week waiting periods to apply for benefits. North Carolina also won’t ask employers to fund benefits for layoffs related to coronavirus, he said.

But for many restaurant and bar owners, that isn’t enough, Andrews said.

“The unemployment issue was a big one, but that’s not going to pay people what they need when they’re losing so much,” she said. “We really need a moratorium on rent and loan payments.”

Andrews had to shut down Arcana completely. Unlike some restaurants, bars can’t offer take-out options.

“We’ve asked for a rent abatement from our landlord, but we’re hoping for a directive from higher up,” she said. “Worst-case scenario, this could go on for months.”

Chef Matt Kelly owns five popular Durham restaurants, including Vin Rouge, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, and the recently reopened Saint James Seafood. Tuesday, for the first time in his career, he was calling employees one-by-one to lay them off.

“I’ve never done it,” he said. “I’ve never laid one person off. But no one really has a choice.”

Kelly has been part of multiple efforts to advocate for relief from local, state, and federal authorities, he said. Eliminating payroll tax and starting rent abatements are some of the measures that could provide “immediate relief” for restaurants and their employees, he said.

Andrews said that her business’ needs will depend on how long closures last. If Arcana can’t open for more than a few weeks, she would need a “total freeze” on expenses to make it through.

But “we could go longer if we get the kind of aid we need,” she said.

Both Kelly and Andrews want to reopen after the COVID-19 crisis fades. Kelly worries most about Saint James Seafood, his newest restaurant that reopened only two months ago after it was badly damaged in last April’s gas explosion in downtown Durham.  

“We had to use all our capital on Saint James,” he said.

Both owners agreed that aid from the state could significantly improve prospects for many others in their shoes.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be any viability for anyone unless we get more serious relief,” Andrews said.

At top: There was no sign of customers walking or driving on a stretch of Ninth Street, usually a busy commercial center, Tuesday morning. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone