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Fayette Place development sparks criticism from Hayti community

It’s not a place that people tend to visit.

At the corner of East Umstead and Grant Streets sits Fayette Place. A metallic fence that’s taller than a street lamp post encloses the 20-acre site. But even from the outside, anyone can see the honey-colored grass that isn’t mowed; the clusters of crumbling red bricks that aren’t paved; the bits of trash that are carried inside by the wind or trespassers. 

But Fayette Place won’t remain vacant forever. In January, the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) released its proposal to build 774 affordable housing units on the property. The ground plan features a variety of building designs: garden-style walk-ups, L-shaped low-rise apartments, a parking structure and a 2,000-square-foot retail parcel. 

The City of Durham is funding this three-phase project. Five years ago, officials awarded the DHA a $4.2 million grant to purchase the land. The agreement comes with a stipulation: the city must allow the community to “contribute input in connection with the redevelopment of the site and the surrounding area.” 

The housing authority claims it has done just that. But residents of the local Hayti district—encircling Fayette Place—say that the authority has not considered their feedback. 

***

“From what I have heard and assessed,” Hayti resident Melvin Speight said, “they [the DHA] have talked to very few people.”

Speight grew up in the historic African-American neighborhood. It’s the place where he attended services at nearby Mount Vernon Baptist Church with his four sisters. It’s the place where, as a young man, he joined his father’s business, Speight’s Auto Services, at 422 Pettigrew Street. It’s the place where  Speight is at home.

Speight is one of many Black entrepreneurs who form Durham’s African-American commercial heart. In the 20th century, over 200 African-American-owned businesses lined Fayetteville, Pettigrew and Pine streets in Hayti. Residents of the district want to ensure that the community’s history as a cultural and commercial hub is not forgotten.

***

“My dream and vision,” resident Faye Calhoun says, “is that a Black history tour will start.” She gently smiles, revealing laugh lines that curve up to her silver glasses. Her curly ash-colored hair rests atop her beaming face. 

Since 2017,  Calhoun has lived near the Fayetteville Street corridor. Her home is an understated, yet picturesque, brick property with four bedrooms. She hopes that Hayti becomes a destination that represents Durham’s African-American history. 

Yet Calhoun hasn’t had the chance, she says, to voice her aspirations to the housing authority. “They know how to contact us,” she says, shaking her head. “And they did not.”

***

Bishop Clarence Laney’s concern for the neighborhood’s history stems from his 26 years of work in the community. He currently leads a congregation of nearly 300 people at the Church of God of Prophecy. Even though services are being held over Zoom, Bishop Laney stays connected with parishioners through regular coffee chats outside of church.. 

The housing authority has overlooked Bishop Laney’s congregation and their feedback, he says. “The DHA has not done a good job, in my opinion, in making sure that the voices of those who live in the community are centered in this project,” he says.

Speaking via Zoom from his home office, against a backdrop of burnt-orange walls, he says he wants to see “a park or some sort of memorial, which reflects the true history and past of this community.” 

***

Other members of the community would like to see the housing authority contribute to Hayti’s economic development. Among these people is Henry McKoy, who serves as the project director of Hayti Reborn, a developer that aims to revitalize the Fayetteville Street corridor.

“There is a desire to create something that would spur permanent jobs, economic opportunity, and upward mobility,” McKoy says. He pauses and reclines in his black swivel chair. The subtle motion creates a few wrinkles in his white checkered button-down. 

McKoy believes the DHA should prioritize generational wealth-building because of his own upbringing. As a child, he watched his 15-year-old mother drop out of high school.  McKoy stood by her, 15 years later, when she passed her General Educational Development test before she graduated from Fayetteville Technical Institute. Inspired by her, he eventually became the first person in his family to attend graduate school.

He believes that upward mobility and economic development go hand-in-hand. 

He views the housing authority’s current approach to Fayette Place as nearsighted. “There’s a tendency to think,” says  McKoy, “that poor African-Americans only need to be housed.” 

***

When the DHA announced its purchase of Fayette Place five years ago, an optimistic buzz filled the Hayti community. The land would no longer be vacant. It could serve a purpose. It could offer affordable housing to Hayti. 

“Right now, housing in Durham is getting to be not affordable,” said Calhoun. “Unaffordable. So affordable housing is a good thing.”

Yet many Hayti residents’ perception of the housing authority soured as plans for Fayette Place unfolded. Subsequent to the land acquisition,“Our next steps were going to be a planning process to determine what we would build on the site,” says the DHA’s CEO Anthony Scott.

This planning process for Fayette Place was part of the DHA Downtown Neighborhood Plan (DDNP). The plan is a comprehensive 10-year roadmap to develop mixed-income, mixed-use communities across nearly 60 acres of downtown Durham’s publicly owned land. 

For each DDNP site, the housing authority ordered a market study. The Fayette Place analysis, however, delayed the site’s development. “The market study determined that the Fayette Place site was not one of the sites that we should immediately look to develop,” says  Scott, “just because of the market conditions of the community—the community being the Durham community as a whole.” 

Scott did not explain how the market conditions of Durham “as a whole” delayed Fayette Place’s development. Nor did his communications manager, Aalayah Sanders, respond to a follow-up email sent on March 26.

It wasn’t until January 2022 that the DHA announced the selection of its developer for Fayette Place: Durham Development Partners, a joint venture team that includes F7 International Development, Greystone Affordable Development and Gilbane Development Company. The housing authority chose Durham Development Partners over other developers, including Hayti Reborn.

A February 2022 letter released by Hayti Reborn complained that the chosen developer “came into the community and met with residents for a brief afternoon. At no time was the schematics, the plans, none of that was shared with the community prior to being selected by DHA.”

Scott, however, defends the housing authority’s community engagement at Fayette Place: “We’ve been very methodical. We spent a lot of time in getting the feedback from the community,” he says.

Scott did not say how or when the DHA connected with community members. 

In March, the housing authority formally responded to Hayti Reborn. Scott wrote a five-page letter to McKoy, explaining the developer selection process. He says that Hayti Reborn received the lowest aggregate score from a selection committee. No selection criteria were specified.

A spokeswoman for the housing authority also says, via email, that “All proposers had ample opportunity to provide feedback on the selection process and DHA did not receive any concerns during the approximately 90 day solicitation period.”

McKoy is now calling upon the Durham City Council for help. He is concerned about the committee’s review process.

In an April 4 letter to “Honorable Durham City Leadership,” McKoy writes, “Hayti Reborn was the ONLY team not allowed to present its plan through interview to the DHA Review Committee prior to their selection.” 

McKoy says that he’s asking for three things. First, he wants to schedule a public Durham City Council hearing. Second, McKoy is requesting a “city injunction” ordering the housing authority to pause its Fayette Place development plans until a city hearing occurs. And third,  he asks that “The diverse public of Durham be allowed time and space to offer feedback to the City Council.”

At the housing authority, “you’re going to find a couple of African-Americans over there in leadership positions,” Calhoun says. Scott and several other top DHA officials are African-American. 

 Calhoun adds: “They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Above: A view of the Fayette Place site; photo by 9th Street Journal writer and photographer Chloe Hubbe. Portraits of Melvin Speight, Henry McKoy and Faye Calhoun by 9th Street Journal photographers Kulsoom Rizavi and Simran Prakash.

How Elon Musk and his trolls attacked a Duke professor on Twitter

It is not unusual for Tesla CEO Elon Musk to tweet 30 times a day. Twitter is his marketing platform, his customer service hub and, unfortunately for his opponents, his battleground. (And now, he is seeking to buy it.)

Last October, Musk used Twitter to target Missy Cummings, a Duke University professor and automation expert. “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla,” he tweeted in response to one of his fans.

Those 9 words – just the latest in an ongoing disagreement between two outsized personalities in the booming field of automation – unleashed a fury. 

Musk’s tweet mobilized an army of virtual trolls that attacked Cummings, who initially responded with grace. “​​Happy to sit down and talk with you anytime,” she tweeted back to Musk. This only enraged the trolls further, who smeared her online. And two days later, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of online harassment, Cummings deleted her Twitter account, stopped all public commentary and for the next few months largely went silent online.

This is the tale of that feud, which represents two distinct viewpoints about the technology behind the nation’s most popular electric car. The feud continues to simmer in different corners of social media, and will likely boil over in new ways in the future, especially if Musk succeeds with the Twitter takeover and his promise to make his favorite battlefield “broadly inclusive.” 

This account is based on the tweets and public statements made by the many parties involved, a Change.org petition, LinkedIn posts by Cummings, and the syllabus she used for her Duke engineering course at the time of the tumult on Twitter. Cummings declined to comment to The 9th Street Journal. Neither Tesla nor Musk responded to requests. 

‘Killer robots’

The online feud traces back to at least 2017 when Cummings, a widely known former Navy pilot who became a professor in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, began tweeting her concerns about Tesla’s highly automated cars, saying that they were “killing people,” among other criticisms. 

Sometimes she was clinical, tweeting that Tesla’s autopilot technology gave drivers “mode confusion.” Other times she was blunt, saying that Tesla’s “killer robots” are so dangerous her students who tested them in the lab should “get hazardous duty pay.”

On occasion, she got personal toward Musk. Cummings went as far as posting a GIF of a woman knocking a man out of his chair with a single punch, suggesting she might do the same to Musk. 

Cummings has since deleted and apologized for that tweet. “I was trying to make an admittedly bad joke that I would pull no punches if in a conversation with Elon Musk,” she posted in February. She clarified that she loves Tesla as a company and believes electric cars are the future, but feels obligated to voice the safety concerns she has with an automation system that is “terribly flawed.” 

The apology apparently didn’t do much to mend her relationship with Musk or his fervent supporters. 

Musk’s tweet inspired his supporters to begin attacking Missy Cummings.

When President Biden appointed Cummings to be a senior advisor for safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Oct. 19, Tesla supporters immediately took to Twitter to air their grievances, however profane and inappropriate. 

Insults were hurled at Cummings calling her “anti-American,” a “tacky, petty woman,” an “obnoxious female” and a “b*tt hurt old woman.” One since-removed tweet responded to the news of Cummings’s appointment by saying: “If they try and take Autopilot (Tesla’s automated driving system) away from us we will riot so hard January 6 will look like a day at Disneyland.”

A handful of users voiced their support for Cummings online, saying, “Missy, I’m sorry this is happening. I support you!” or “thank you for your service Missy.” The Naturalistic Decision Making Association, an organization that helps clients navigate high-stakes decision-making, issued a statement acknowledging its support of Cummings. But these voices were far outnumbered.

Following her appointment, Cummings refrained from responding to the trolls. She was still directing research at Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, which focuses on the interactions between humans and computers with autonomous features. (The lab’s acronym is HAL, a nod to the evil computer in one of Cummings’s favorite films, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

No stranger to stress

During the Twitter battle, she was teaching a class at Duke’s engineering school called The Human Element in Cyber Security, lecturing her undergraduate students about cybersecurity breaches. On the last page of her class syllabus, Cummings pasted a link to a list of Duke resources meant to help students who are experiencing “a range of issues that could pose a challenge to learning” including anxiety, stress and feeling down. 

Cummings is no stranger to stress. Her interests put her in situations where she has to regularly contemplate life or death scenarios. She’s also no stranger to sexism, or to being challenged by powerful men. 

In the Navy, men went out of their way to make Cummings’s life difficult. “I saw all the problems that come around with being one of a minority that’s trying to break into a majority,” she said in a podcast interview with Forward Thinking. One of her call names, nicknames given to aviators, was Medusa, a formidable woman in Greek mythology.

Cummings pivoted to a new career path. Her interest in preventing plane crashes led her to space systems engineering and eventually to Duke, where she focused on operator trust of autonomous systems and simulating unmanned robotic environments. The common thread: safety. 

The trolls

Cummings has seen what can happen when there is miscommunication between human and machine. It’s what compels her to speak out against Tesla. Her main gripe is not with Musk, it’s with his refusal to incorporate a particular safety technology, LiDAR, into Tesla’s automation system. 

LiDAR is a radar system that uses lasers to measure the distance between a sensor and surrounding objects. Cummings believes LiDAR is crucial for self-driving cars to accurately make sense of their surroundings. But Musk disagrees, calling the system “a fool’s errand.” 

So, Cummings called him out.

The trolls responded right away. The day after her NHTSA appointment, one ventured beyond Twitter to create a petition on Change.org that called on the Biden administration to reconsider its appointment of Cummings to NHTSA due to “violation of agency guidelines and ethical principles concerning conflict of interest and bias.” It cited Cummings’s role on the board of directors at Veoneer, a Swedish automation company in competition with Tesla (she has since resigned); the unproven charge that she was a member of TSLAQ, an online collective of Tesla critics; and her public statements. 

Written under the moniker “Autopilot Users for Progress,” the petition gained over 30,000 signatures in 48 hours before Change.org took it down due to “defamatory” content. The tweets however, continued to flood in, and on Oct. 21, Cummings deleted her Twitter account.

This measure, though drastic, did little to tame the trolls. They continue to harass Cummings on Twitter, even if she may never see it. Some found her personal email and began to send her threats privately. The emails prompted Cummings, who had declined to comment on the attacks, to break her silence. 

‘In case anything happens to me’

Two months ago, on her LinkedIn page, Cummings posted screenshots of threatening messages she’s received “so that there is a traceable and public record in case anything happens to me.” 

The use of words like “consequences” and “karma” in these messages are what scares Cummings, she said. “I am increasingly concerned about my personal safety around people who clearly are not capable of rational and reasoned thinking,” she posted.

One person suggested on LinkedIn that Cummings seek protection from the university, but Cummings responded “unfortunately Duke has not been supportive, they are afraid of controversy.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment on her critical LinkedIn post. 

Cummings also wrote, “when women say they are afraid for their physical #safety, especially those of us who are public facing, they need to be believed.”

Photos at top: Missy Cummings –  Duke University; Elon Musk – Wikimedia Commons 

As Durham buildings fall to the wrecking ball, a Facebook community gathers to watch, vent and question

​​Addy Cozart’s first post to “The Teardowns of Durham” Facebook group features a series of emojis: angry, sad, crying. 

“My block @ Hillsborough and Rutherford has been sold,” the Feb. 21 post says. “Final day to move out March 4th. The buyers are developers. I’m assuming more apartments will go up.…” 

The comments came rolling in, mostly sympathetic, some angry and indignant.

Cozart’s is just one of the emotional posts that litter the walls of The Teardowns of Durham, an open Facebook group that focuses on pictures and information relevant to Durham’s changing housing landscape.

This is a place of solidarity: with over 3,500 members and counting, the group includes posts about hundreds of buildings that have been torn down, housing justice activism and new, expensive housing in the area. Though the active member count is much smaller, the Facebook group is a public page for a reason: it’s a place for free information. And with about 50 posts per month in the group, and many more comments on each, there’s much to be informed about.

The Teardowns of Durham is partly just what it sounds like — a Facebook group about buildings that have been or are being torn down. But it has also become a forum where locals discuss how Durham is changing and shifting, where new developments are coming and which buildings they once recognized are coming down. 

The active discussion reflects Durham’s housing crisis: in the first three months of 2021, about 2,400 homes were sold in Raleigh and Durham. Of those, more than half were bought either by people from out of state or companies, according to a report from the Triangle Business Journal. According to WRAL, 20% of homes in Durham have been purchased by investors in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 11% in second quarter 2020. 

Durham housing prices and property taxes also have increased, making it harder for newcomers to buy and for residents to stay. Meanwhile, though Durham has made efforts to create rent relief programs, the demand for housing remains high, and housing stocks are low.

The Facebook group began as a way to exchange information among a small group of Durham friends and colleagues. It has now ballooned to include thousands of members, from Duke students to Durhamites who have been here since childhood. 

There’s a catharsis that runs through each post about a demolished Durham building — a need to tell someone about the frustration at losing a property. A recent post by David Becker is typical of many.

“Big beautiful place on the corner of Gregson and Club was there yesterday when I drove by. This morning….gone,” Becker writes. Much of the frustration aired on the Facebook group reflects worries about losing Durham’s personality, including historic buildings that are dispersed throughout the city. Durham has 15 historic neighborhoods that are listed as National Register Historic Districts. In addition to the Facebook group, other activists and preservationist groups include Open Durham, Historic Preservation Society of Durham and Preservation Durham.

Frequent poster Chris Jay notes that a homeowner refurbished an old home to make it an “weekend getaway” out in Narrowsburg, New York.

“Imagine if all the old homes in Durham that are getting torn down were revitalized and brought back to life to their original classic design, including decor,” Jay says. “That’s what this woman did!”

Another commentator echoes Jay’s sentiment.

“I’m sad we are losing so much of Durham’s history,” the post says. “When someone’s lived here all their life, the changes seem so overwhelming… not always a good thing.”

Some posters on the Facebook group push back, arguing that romanticizing old houses will not make Durham more affordable, and will not stop gentrification.

The posts that consistently get substantial interactions, though? Questions. Many users in the Facebook group wonder what is happening to Durham’s warehouse district, around the corner from Fullsteam Brewery and The Accordion, where commercial buildings are being torn down on Geer Street. Another poster supplies a partial answer, responding that a Washington D.C. developer plans to create two large apartment complexes called GeerHouse.

One user laments the teardown of one home replaced by four modern tiny homes on Pritchard Place, near North Carolina Central University. Another user shares a tip: she heard that a century-old Pentecostal church in West Durham is being sold. Responses flood in. The overtone of the conversation: will the church be torn down? 

Concerned Durhamites started the Teardowns of Durham Facebook group in May 2019, when the pace of construction and demolition around Durham was ramping up in neighborhoods including Trinity Park, Braggtown, Watts-Hillandale, Campus Hills and more. 

In part, the group fills an information gap. Local journalism has been declining in most places in the country, including in Durham, and there are fewer local news sources to keep Durhamites informed about their changing city.  

That is a major reason why Ellen Dagenhart, who previously served as president of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham, joined the Facebook group in September 2019.

“The few remaining reporters just can’t be at every meeting where so much of the sausage is brought up and made,” she said. “There’s an awful lot of mischief happening that is under the radar now. Teardowns is filling a void, a need, for a place where people can share, learn, question, vent.”

Bonita Green was born and raised in Durham. She left Durham for South Florida in 1999, and when she returned in 2012

, she didn’t recognize the city she loved.  Now, she lives in the Merrick-Moore Community and works with the Merrick-Moore Community Development Organization. Fed up with the rapid development, she has used the Teardowns group to air her frustrations, she said in a recent interview.

“I saw all the development in my community and the acres of land that the city bought on the West side of Durham. So I had a fear of being washed out. I was fighting to protect the legacy of this community,” Green said.

For people like Green, the Facebook group has become more than a place to simply share news and vent. It has also become a site of political organization and mobilization. There are almost as many petitions in the group as pictures of bulldozed buildings.  

Urban planner and Durham resident Nate Baker said the petitions and political activism of the group tell a greater story: they reflect many Durhamites’ desire for control over the housing situation in their city. He believes Durham residents are not necessarily resistant to change, as long as they are included in the process.

“I think people have anxiety about the world changing around them and not really having much of a say in the matter,” Baker said. “There hasn’t been robust community engagement and planning processes to alleviate some people’s concerns over teardowns.”

He says the city could make changes, like building more affordable housing complexes, that would make Durham’s residents feel more empowered.

Dagenhart, the member who joined the Facebook group in 2019, said the Facebook group is also a place where residents can talk about their aspirations for what Durham could be. She recalled the joyous ceremony that took place in 2011, when ​​more than 2,000 citizens took vows to “Marry Durham,” promising to protect the city and its reputation and to honor its diversity.

“I think Durham is in need of some marriage counseling,” Dagenhart said.

Above: The South Bank building downtown is among many Durham buildings undergoing demolition to make way for new construction. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal

Mulch, fertilizer and 108 years: garden business has a new address, but a time-honored approach

Step inside, and you’ll feel like you’ve been teleported back to the 1920s. 

Racks of fertilizer and seed line the aisles. An assortment of gardening hats lies directly in front of the entrance. Step into a smaller side room, and the bags of mulch are impossible to miss. Locally owned stores like this one are not as common anymore, but don’t tell that to George Davis, the owner of Stone Brothers & Byrd. 

On a recent Friday, Davis, wearing a classic gardener’s hat, was helping customers left and right. Even after 46 years of ownership, his dedication is still evident.

“I think ’91 was the last farm mechanic that I had, and that was the end of that,” Davis said. “So from ’90-’91 to the present, we’ve been lawn and garden.” 

For 108 years, Stone Brothers has been a staple of the Durham community, providing gardening resources to local farmers and families. From Moss Out! to Cardinal food, from flower pots to gardening gloves, Stone Brothers could always be relied upon, and that’s not about to change. 

What has changed, though, is where that reliability can be found.

For over 50 years, Stone Brothers sat at 700 Washington Street, where the business and its longtime location became intertwined. 

But in line with recent development trends in Durham and the Triangle region, that’s changing. Last May, Beacon Street Development announced it had bought the land from Stone Brothers and laid out plans to build a seven-story complex with 40 luxury condos. With construction set to begin this month on The George, named for Davis, Stone Brothers has moved down to 937 Washington Street, a two-minute drive from its previous spot.

The new development is one of several changes coming to a historic section of the city. Just across from the Durham Athletic Park—the 1926 ball field where the baseball movie “Bull Durham” was filmed in the 1980s—the land is on the corner of West Geer and Washington, with longtime Durham staples like King’s Sandwich Shop just up the road. 

Neighboring businesses say they’ll miss Stone Brothers. The Durham Distillery, for instance, relies on Stone Brothers for the molasses for its liqueurs. 

“Now we have to walk a little bit further,” said Josh Dixon, the distillery’s marketing coordinator. 

Meanwhile, Durham Distillery is also facing a second development in its backyard, a six-story mixed-use project headed by Florida-based Ram Realty Advisors. Right behind the distillery, a train trestle butts up against the loading dock, with enough space for backdoor deliveries. But not for long.  

“This new building that is coming in will be building a retaining wall where that train trestle is,” Dixon said. “As it currently stands, that retaining wall will keep us from being able to use our loading dock. Which means that we’re going to have to figure out our entire operation.” 

That’s disappointing, Dixon said. 

“The spirit of Durham has always been about caring for each other, giving to each other. This parking-land agreement, those agreements have been just historically such a big part of being a small business owner in the Durham area.”

Still another condo project is in the works a few blocks down Geer Street. Dixon is concerned that so much development may disrupt the character of the neighborhood.

“The people who’ve been here, who’ve been traditional Durhamites, are being pushed out,” Dixon said.

Some of Stone Brothers’ former neighbors, though, are philosophical about the changes. 

Bill Whittington owns the Blue Note Grill, across the street from Stone Brothers’ old location.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t want to be down here,” Whittington said. “There was nothing going on, very little business, just buildings and warehouses or industrial-type stuff.”

Stone Brothers did not go too far—since Feb. 26, it has been in its new location further north on Washington Street—but it still occupies a different space for the first time in decades

Davis, who has been the sole active owner of Stone Brothers since he and a few family members bought the business in 1976, said he had a lot on his plate with the move.

“It was a lot of planning,” said Davis. “My right arm came up here and laid out a bunch of displays, had done measuring down [at the old location] then came up and measured spots up here…. We started a month ago moving warehouse merchandise ourselves.” 

Debbie Swanner has been shopping at Stone Brothers since the 1980s. On a recent Friday, she was in the store searching for starter plants for her flower bed.“You don’t have to buy everything packaged up, you can say, ‘I want an ounce of cucumber seeds,’ and if you have a small garden, that’s great,” she said. 

Swanner sees pluses to the store’s spacious new location. 

“If you have a garden center, you need sun to put your plants out for people to look at it,” she said. 

Davis also sees some benefits from the move.

“We sort of have more parking space, which we think will aid our customers quite a bit,” he said. 

Davis doesn’t envision any changes to the mission of the business. Being able to adapt to the ever-evolving needs of customers is “what keeps us going,” he said.

Fertilizer to seed. Avid gardeners to families simply looking for some outdoor supplies. It might have packed up and moved down the road, but 108 years later, Stone Brothers keeps on keeping on. 

 

Above: George Davis has owned and managed of Stone Brothers & Byrd since 1976. Outside Stone Brothers’ former location, signs reflect the former business and the new condos that are coming. Immediately above, a customer browses in Stone Brothers’ new store. Photos by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

Oysters, aguachile and resilience at the newly reopened Saint James

The table settings at Saint James Seafood are the first sign it’s a special place: a blue striped cloth napkin and a paper menu with cheeky illustrations – a claw nabbing a cherry from a cocktail glass, a fish with sexy lady legs, and a shark tanning on a beach inside a bottle. 

The Main Street restaurant promises “quality seafood” and “reasonably good times” and says that it’s been open “off and on since 2017.”

Less than two years after Saint James first opened, a deadly gas explosion in April 2019 forced the restaurant to close. The building was condemned and Matt Kelly, the chef and owner, didn’t know when his business could reopen. “I was stressing out about it. The debt was piling up. It was awful,” he said. “Also, like, I’m a chef. I’m pretty risk averse … but I was committed on reopening for some reason. And we did it.”

Saint James resumed operations in January 2020 only to shut down 39 days later because of the pandemic. For a brief stint in 2020, the restaurant launched a takeout joint called Jimmy’s Dockside. It reopened on Feb. 2, 2022.

Kelly said that Saint James was able to stay in business because of the federal Paycheck Protection Program grants distributed during the pandemic. 

“We, of course, want to have high-end service and high-end cuisine, and we aspire to greatness,” said John Quintal, Saint James’s general manager. “But at the end of the day, we have been closed twice due to things beyond our control and all you can really do is laugh.”

Kelly draws inspiration from classic coastal dishes. The menu features Calabash-style fried seafood, raw oysters and Juan’s aguachile. Kelly is also one of the owners of Durham restaurants Vin Rouge, Mothers & Sons and Mateo.

“When I open a restaurant, it’s a way to explore a culture,” Kelly said.

Kelly, 46, started as a dishwasher. He remembers buying $80 cookbooks, hungry to learn how to cook. Since then, he’s fallen in love with different food cultures and become one of the most prominent restaurateurs in Durham. 

Recently, Kelly has been working the raw bar at Saint James, named after the patron saint of shellfish and the hospital founded by Kelly’s family. Most dinner guests don’t suspect the owner is the bearded guy wearing overalls and shucking oysters. 

For Kelly, oysters are special because they demand simplicity. “Oysters are full of umami, good flavor, salt. They don’t need anything,” Kelly said. His menu allows less flashy ingredients to stand out, too – like the fries. Kelly starts with Idaho russet potatoes, which are then brined in vinegar, fried, and tossed with old bay seasoning.

Before Kelly bought the place, it was a seafood restaurant called Fishmonger’s for 34 years. He had been wanting to open a seafood restaurant – as is evidenced by his prolific personal collection of oyster plates, which now adorn the wall behind the hostess stand.

The place is warm but eclectic. He left the original black-and-white tile flooring from the site’s former life as a car dealership. The bluefin swordfish hanging above the main dining room, however, is a more recent addition, as are the glass buoy lighting fixtures, portholes and bright yellow bar stools that allude to a fisherman’s slicker. In the second-floor dining room (a.k.a the Captain’s Quarters) is a mural of a giant octopus crushing a ship. 

Quintal said Kelly is “definitely an artist.” “This is his vision – the food, the building, the design, the art. He’s just got a keen eye.”

Above: Customers return to the reopened Saint James, where chef Matt Kelly works the oyster bar. Photos by Julianna Rennie and Milena Ozernova – The 9th Street Journal 

Two years into the pandemic, live music venues hope for better times ahead

In October, Bill Whittington, owner of Durham’s Blue Note Grill, was eagerly awaiting a performance by singer-songwriter Darrell Scott. The show was slated for Thursday, Oct. 21 and  had been promoted on Blue Note’s website, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Yet a week before the show, hardly any tickets had been sold. In the midst of the Omicron wave, the venue made a joint decision with Scott to cancel the show. 

“It was frustrating,” Whittington said. “Things were picking back up, and we were looking towards normal again. Then September and October came along and numbers went back down like 50%.”

Jeremy Roth, founder of Motorco in downtown Durham, agrees.

“Things started to seem normal again, and then Omicron hit,” Roth said. “It was almost like we were starting from scratch.” 

The Darrell Scott show has since been rescheduled for April 28 at Blue Note, and Whittington is hoping for a strong turnout. But the moving puzzle pieces of canceled shows and rescheduled dates are among the many challenges new COVID variants present for Blue Note and other Durham music venues. Although wary of yet another wave, venue owners are hopeful that as COVID cases diminish, Durham residents will feel comfortable going to concerts again. 

Pre-pandemic, Motorco expected one in 10 ticket holders not to show up for a concert. The pandemic brought dramatic changes. 

First the club simply went silent. Large gatherings were not permitted because of government regulations and customers wanted to stay home, anyway. When Bully, an American rock band, took the stage at Motorco on August 23, 2021, it was the first time the venue held a live performance since March 2020. Yet only 64% of ticket holders showed up to the event.

Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg singer and musician, took the stage on September 5, 2021 expecting a full house. His show had practically sold out, yet he was met by applause from only 74% of those who had purchased tickets.  

Then came the Omicron variant. At Motorco and other venues, many fall shows were cancelled because artists feared COVID or ticket sales were too low. Roth, Motorco’s owner, says it’s difficult to put a number on lost profits. “Obviously it’s better for folks to buy tickets and not show up than not buy tickets at all, ” he said.

It’s not just about ticket sales, though. When ticket holders don’t show up, Motorco loses a significant portion of potential bar sales, the club’s primary source of income from concerts. At Mdou Moctar’s concert, no-shows meant that the club lost a quarter of its potential revenue, Roth said. 

“The artists get the money from the tickets,” Roth said. “In order for us to be a business and pay rent, we make money from the bar.” 

In addition to its concert showroom, Motorco has a separate restaurant and bar that allows the business to make additional income. Blue Note Grill also has a restaurant. Whittington said his business would not have survived the pandemic without the additional profit. 

Tim Walter, director of The Fruit, pointed out that most music venues in Durham are either supported by the city or have a restaurant. For venues that rely solely on live performances for their revenue, the second shutdown due to Omicron prolonged financial troubles. 

“Live music in Durham as a stand-alone proposition is a money-losing operation in the best of times,” Walter said. 

As a result of the pandemic, The Fruit is now carrying 50% more debt. If 2022 doesn’t pick up as many business owners hope, the Fruit could face double the debt burden the club carried before COVID. This potential increase in debt would add three to four thousand dollars to the club’s monthly overhead, Walter said. 

“We’re a social enterprise,” Walter said. “We’re just trying to break even.”

Now, as Omicron cases  slow, music venues are focused on moving forward with pandemic precautions in mind. Tritonal, an American DJ duo, recently performed at The Fruit. The show sold out at the last minute, but Walter was disappointed nonetheless. 

“It should have sold out a week in advance,” he said. “When I start to see that happening, then I’ll say we’re back. But I don’t think that will happen in 2022.”

Venues in the Triangle vary in their COVID regulations. Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, one of the Triangle’s venerable music venues, requires that concertgoers show either proof of vaccination or a professionally administered negative test within 72 hours of the show date. However, such requirements present an additional burden on venues, said Cat’s Cradle owner Frank Heath.

“It’s very time-consuming and intensive because everyone shows up at the same time,” Heath said. “We’re doing our best to get people through the doors as quickly as possible.”

Motorco has similar precautions in place. The club requires temperature checks, vaccination checks and  masks. Since its restaurant provides a secondary source of income, Motorco can afford to lose some concert customers who refuse to get vaccinated or choose not to wear a mask, says Roth. 

Many venues in Durham are not as strict. The Fruit does not have these regulations, for instance.  Walter said the Fruit cannot afford to lose business from customers who have abstained from getting vaccinated or prefer not to wear a mask. 

Early in the pandemic, the venue required proof of vaccination and checked temperatures at the door. They revised these regulations when Omicron came around. 

It’s easy for patrons to fake vaccination cards, Walter said. With that in mind, and given the area’s relatively high vaccination rates, the venue decided to let individuals monitor their own risk. Now, the venue leaves it up to concert-goers to determine if they want to mask or social distance. 

Coming out of the pandemic, many venue owners are more conservative in how they view revenue sources. 

“The money we make off of ticket sales, I now treat that like it’s fake money until we settle the show,” Roth said. 

Some venue owners said the demand for live music has diminished coming out of the recent Omicron surge. Durham residents still seem apprehensive about entering crowded indoor spaces, Walter said. 

“Folks are just out of the habit of going out,”  he said. 

Others noted that public demand for live events mirrors news coverage of COVID. 

“As soon as the newspapers say there’s a lull in the current wave, a lot of people start going to shows who aren’t worried about spreading the virus,” Heath said. 

Venue owners are trying to remain flexible in an ever-evolving situation. Many are finding people are willing to pay higher prices for tickets. Bands have capitalized on pent-up demand and are charging more to perform. 

“Shows that were $15 dollars are now $20,” Heath said. He believes it will stay this way until the demand no longer allows for increased ticket prices.

Club owners also face staffing difficulties, in part because many workers can make more money working remotely than working onsite at a venue, Heath said. 

Blue Note Grill has had similar staffing shortages and is working on automating its serving and payment processes to supplement the lack of servers. 

“We’re rethinking how we serve the customers, so one server can handle more tables,” Whittington said. 

Venues remain wary of another shutdown. Heath said that if ticket sales pick up for the rest of the academic year, it will be a promising sign that things can return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“It’s hard to feel extremely optimistic until we have a month where nothing crazy happened,” he said. “I’m hoping that April will be that month.”   

But the threat of another variant shutdown still looms, making many venue owners cautiously optimistic. 

“I’m not sure what the next Greek letter is after Omicron,” Roth said. “But personally, I’m thinking about that.”

Above: Customers are returning to some live music venues, such as Durham’s Blue Note Grill. Photo by Milena Ozernova – 9th Street Journal 

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Black entrepreneurs on doing business in Durham today

Durham has long been a beacon of Black entrepreneurship. The nation’s second-oldest African American bank, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, once America’s largest Black-owned and -operated life insurance company, were both located on West Parrish Street, helping the street earn the byname “Black Wall Street.” In the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington praised Durham for its Black enterprise, while W. E. B. DuBois hailed “The Upbuilding of Black Durham.” Black-owned businesses struggled in the late 20th century due to factors including integration and urban renewal, which razed much of the Hayti community. In recent years, however, Black entrepreneurship has been on the rise in the Bull City. With this history in mind, we spoke to founders of three Durham Black-owned businesses about their journeys.

Celebrating Black literary traditions

When Beverley Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo opened Rofhiwa Book Café in May 2021, they filled a perceived gap in the East Durham community. 

“What I think had been lacking was places to exchange ideas that are focused upon particularly Black literary traditions,” said Yaziyo, Rofhiwa’s curator and a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Duke. 

Rofhiwa means “we have been given/blessed” in Tshivenda, a language spoken by the Venda people of South Africa. With an expansive selection of books by Black authors, foreign and domestically published, as well as hot and cold drinks and a welcoming seating area for customers to read and work, Rofhiwa has built an environment for customers to relax, read and discuss Black literature. 

The two South African entrepreneurs carry “a very global selection” but face constraints due to limited printing runs of books printed outside the United States. As a result, the store may hold just one copy of a given book at a time.

“Sometimes it means we traveled to South Africa and packed books in a suitcase to bring back to the store,” Yaziyo said. “We have to make do with what we have.” 

Makhubele and Yaziyo launched Rofhiwa using crowdfunding, raising over $40,000 on Kickstarter with an average donation of around $15. 

“Like most young Black entrepreneurs, we were not in a position to approach a bank for a loan,” Makhubele said. “We don’t come from independently wealthy families. Crowdfunding was an obvious option.” 

The store is “Black in the way that we think about our selection, the way that we choose our selection and how we would go about seeking community partnerships and vendors,” Makhubele said. The two were conscious of this message when searching for their storefront’s location, Makhubele said. “We knew it had to be a Black neighborhood.”

“It was important for us to make a thing in a place that was and felt like home,” said Makhubele, a Durham resident of six years. “East Durham is home.” 

Makhubele is also excited and inspired by Durham’s Black businesses. 

“I think the most fascinating thing to me about this moment for Black business in Durham is seeing young entrepreneurs being bold enough to start businesses that are not necessarily traditional, or that are not necessarily addressing an emergent need but are more leisure-focused, that are more interested in putting together different things,” Makhubele said. “I find it very exciting to watch young entrepreneurs introduce these very interesting and creative concepts to the Durham market.”

The co-founders are eager to achieve more as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Naledi and I are very interested in the different ways that we can use our space, not just for literature, but how the space can become a more dynamic one for the arts, for music, for live performance, for all kinds of things,” Makhubele said. Makhubele hopes to continue “building it up with good bones, enough that someone might look at it and say, ‘something’s happening in East Durham, and that’s worth my time.’”

Remembering Durham’s Black business history 

Downtown Durham’s North Carolina Mutual building serves as a physical reminder of the city’s vibrant history of Black entrepreneurship. North Carolina Mutual is shutting down this year after some 123 years in business. But for decades it was a pillar of American Black business.

Seeking to uphold and add to this legacy, Carl Webb co-founded Provident1898 in 2019 with co-founder Peter Cvelich. Provident, a Black-centric shared workspace for innovators and entrepreneurs, occupies a 15,000 square-foot facility on the concourse level of the historic Mutual Tower. Provident1898’s name pays homage to NC Mutual, which was founded in 1898 and was originally called NC Mutual and Provident Association. 

“Let’s look at what [NC Mutual] did 120, almost 125 years ago, and how we can use that as a way to be inspired for what the next generation can do,” Webb said. “We wanted to provide some progressive and positive ways of building the community, similar to the founders of NC Mutual.”

Reminders of Durham’s rich history of Black businesses line Provident’s walls. The original sign from the entrance to Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor—where the Royal Ice Cream sit-in took place in 1957, more than two years before the famous Greensboro sit-in—hangs prominently in Provident’s lounge. Provident’s conference rooms are named for Durham’s Black leaders, including John Merrick, the founder of NC Mutual, Charles Clinton Spaulding, who presided over NC Mutual for several decades and Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore, Durham’s first Black doctor and a leader of the Hayti community.

Provident offers offices, desks, meeting rooms and a lounge to both small businesses and solopreneurs. Provident’s partners include non-profits like the Durham Public Schools Foundation and profit making businesses like Hayti, a Black news media app. 

Webb has spent almost 40 years as an entrepreneur in marketing communications and urban development. Cvelich has also spent much of his career in urban planning. 

The endeavor has special resonance for Webb, a Durham native.

“Being in a community where I’ve had the benefit of seeing Black entrepreneurs and business people accomplish significant things, I never quite felt like it was a stretch to want to start a business,” Webb said. “I saw the people starting businesses, so those role models and examples were really, really helpful for me very, very, very early on.”

Webb is optimistic about the young business. 

“We are committed to doing the work, and the hope is that the market will find what we’re offering to be something that’s worthy of support,” he said. “I’m encouraged that the indication so far says yes, but it’s not going to be easy.” 

Webb is hopeful for the future of Black business in Durham more broadly, too. Webb sees progress with the North Carolina IDEA Fund, the Greater Durham Black Chamber of Commerce and other similar organizations. Still, he says, obstacles remain.

“The real question is, what will the stakeholders and leaders, both public and private, do about closing the opportunity gap?” Webb said. “We need to continue to focus on shared economic prosperity, and we, as a community, can’t sustain by having such a huge gap between the haves and have-nots.” 

 

Serving up fusion cuisine 

In 2015, Toriano Fredericks was working on an offshore oil drillship, serving long stints at sea. That year, he and his wife, Serena Fredericks, launched their Boricua Soul food truck, which serves Latino-Soul fusion cuisine, and operated it during Toriano Fredericks’ four-week breaks between trips. 

“For a couple of years, we ran the truck and tested our concept while still having a day job, essentially,” Toriano said.

In 2018, he left his job to operate the truck full-time.

In November 2019, the Fredericks opened a storefront in the center of the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham. Named for the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico, Boricua pairs the Fredericks’ Puerto Rican and Georgian grandmothers’ love of cooking with dishes like barbecue empanadas or chicharrones de pollo, a Puerto Rican-style fried chicken dish. 

Boricua’s large patio, half-open kitchen and indoor murals commemorating Durham’s history give the restaurant a communal feel. Toriano and Serena work front-and-center, across all open hours, bringing food from the kitchen to Boricua’s customers. 

Showcasing other Black-owned businesses is a priority for the Fredericks. Boricua has collaborated with or purchased goods from Black-owned Pine Knot Farm, Spaceway Brewing and Shoe Crazy Wines. Throughout the year, the Fredericks feature other Black-owned businesses on their social media. 

Less than five months after they opened their storefront, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the couple to temporarily shut down the business. Despite its welcoming indoor space, Boricua has not offered indoor dining since before the pandemic.

“We opened the restaurant going into a slow period going into the winter and then COVID hits, so we really didn’t ever have a chance to get a feel of the landscape,” Toriano Fredericks said.

“I think the fact that we don’t have restaurant experience has helped in a way because we just aren’t sure how anything should be done,” he said. “So we’re just constantly trying things out and being open-minded to them.”

Support from the Durham community has been the only constant for the Fredericks since opening in 2019, they said. That support instills optimism about the future of their business – cautious optimism, that is. While Durham’s recent growth has brought more customers, rent rates have increased. Meanwhile, COVID-19 led to labor shortages. 

“I’d like to be able to execute what we said we were going to do with the menu when we opened up,” Serena Fredericks said. “We haven’t been able to really add things to our menu just because of labor difficulties.” 

Emerging from the pandemic, the Fredericks hope to make Boricua Soul a community staple. Said Toriano Fredericks, “That ability to gather and have people come together is something we’re definitely looking forward to doing again, or doing at all.”

Above: Photos of Beverley Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo, co-owners of Rofhiwa Book Cafe, by 9th Street Journal photographer Simran Prakash.  Photos of Carl Webb and Peter Clevich of Provident1898 and Toriano Fredericks of Boricua Soul by 9th Street Journal photographer Kulsoom Rizavi. 

Hot meals: where to dine outside without shivering

Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous groundhog in Pennsylvania, predicted six more weeks of winter earlier this month and if you believe that a rodent can act as a weatherman, you may be looking for ways to keep warm when venturing outside. With COVID case rates still high, you may also be looking for a way to avoid in-person contact when you eat out. Luckily, Durham restaurants are adapting to current needs with an increase in opportunities for heated, outdoor dining. But the question remains, where can you grab a bite outside and really stay warm? 

I wanted to find places around Durham where I could eat outdoors without freezing, and so I picked a plethora of options that represented a good mix of date spots, group destinations and places to grab a quick beverage. 

Local 22

First up is Local 22, where I enjoyed a spicy chicken sandwich and a flight of beers. I was one of the only people who chose to sit outside that night at a table next to a standing heater that kept me relatively warm.  Overhead heaters hung over a few of the tables, too, but unfortunately I didn’t get placed there. Music played over outdoor speakers made the occasion a little more lively. Nevertheless, I kept looking inside and yearning to be with those people.  If I hadn’t scored a seat right next to the standing heater, I would’ve complained more about the chilly air. Still, I would recommend stopping by, just with a thicker coat.

BoxCar

After Local 22, I went to BoxCar to check out their outdoor seating. Most of the allure of BoxCar is inside: There’s an arcade where you can blow your money on tokens and convince yourself you’re really good at shooting hoops and hunting imaginary animals. Because of this, people don’t generally sit outside, so if you head outdoors, you tend to find yourself yearning to be with the crowd. There are ping pong tables outside, which give groups the option of gathering outdoors with an activity. Also outside are picnic tables and an electric fire that a large group can comfortably crowd around. The electric flames don’t give off much heat, though, so I wouldn’t recommend this place if you want to gamble on staying warm throughout the night without a puffer jacket–unless you’re sweating from an intense ping pong match. 

Guglhupf

If you’re looking for a beautiful, lively spot to grab lunch outdoors, head to Guglhupf. Most people chose to sit outside anyways, so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on any action. It’s a mix of families, old couples and a smattering of hungover college kids. Under the surprisingly warm overhead heaters and some midday sun, you’ll feel incredibly comfortable people-watching and eating your eggs Benedict. 

Parizade

I chose to go to Parizade on one of the worst weather days I’ve ever seen in Durham. Rain, cold, the works. Normally, the outdoor courtyard has heaters, lights and the occasional live music performance by a man singing John Mayer songs and strumming his guitar. Unfortunately, because of the rain, the uncovered courtyard was out of commission the night I visited. Instead, I sat in the covered patio at the front of the restaurant, where the setup felt similar to the one at Parizade’s next-door neighbor, Local 22.  Despite some coverage from the wind,  the weather prevailed, making this a bit of a miserable dinner. 

Jack Tar

Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter is situated in the heart of downtown Durham, right next to Pour and the Unscripted Hotel, so it doesn’t feel lonely to sit outside. I learned my lesson from my Parizade experience, so I  checked the weather beforehand and dressed properly for the occasion, with a scarf, puffer jacket, jeans and boots. The standing heaters next to the tables kept the group pretty toasty, but only for a short amount of time.  I would go here for an appetizer before heading out to explore more of downtown. 

JuJu

At JuJu, my request to sit outside in the cold was met with a shocked look. The reason quickly became clear once I went out on the patio. If you aren’t seated underneath the overhead heaters it is very difficult to stay warm around a fire that doesn’t emit much heat. It is not a popular option to eat outside here, especially at night as I did, but if you have a warm jacket and are stationed directly under the heaters, you can keep warm. You are not protected from the wind in these seats, which means you’ll end up being colder than at a place with wind barriers.

East Cut

East Cut doesn’t currently have indoor seating, but out back is a tent where you can enjoy a classic deli sandwich with friends. The tent doesn’t have heaters. It does properly protect you from a lot of the outside cold, though, which is why I included East Cut in this roundup. I recommend visiting during the day, since it is a lot easier to stay warm in the heat of the sun. In the tent, you can share a meal comfortably and casually on East Cut’s picnic tables. 

Ponysaurus Brewing

The last stop on my exploration across Durham landed me at the picnic tables outside of Ponysaurus Brewing, a place that was built to entertain customers outdoors. After grabbing a beverage, you can enter a lively space outfitted with real wood fires. There are also standing heaters next to the picnic tables to keep you comfortable. This doesn’t mean you should shed the jacket, but it does mean that your friends can cozy around and enjoy one another’s company.

Key Takeaways

  • Always check the weather before heading out to dine outside. Not only will this help you dress properly for the occasion, but it also might suggest when to throw in the towel and get takeout instead.
  • Restaurants with the right combination of standing heaters, overhead heaters, music and tents or screens to block the wind provide an environment that people really want to experience. The best combination of heaters are from standing and overhead options. A tent or a collection of fire pits can provide an element of coziness while still ensuring that you feel far away enough from others to feel COVID-safe. 
  • Most outdoor places are great for a drink or a quick bite. If you choose to settle in for three courses, though, the temperature often gets very chilly before the end of the meal, so I would keep this in mind as you plan your next outdoor outing in the Bull City.

If you’re looking for even more options to try out, check out Discover Durham’s complete list of eating and drinking spots with outdoor heating.

Above: Durhamites dine al fresco at local restaurants, with some help from outdoor heaters. Photos by Claire Kraemer, Milena Ozernova and Kulsoom Rizavi.

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 samuel.rabinowitz@duke.edu

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