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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

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 

A Durham Moment: “We just roll on. That’s how it works.”

Story by Nicole Kagan, photos by Kulsoom Rizavi 

Major the Bull, a 10-foot, 2,500-pound, bronze statue who watches over downtown Durham from his brick pedestal, is a symbol of strength, power and pride. And, on Fat Tuesday, he dons a bright pink tulle tutu around his waist. 

Hanging around Major’s neck is a yellow, green and purple sign made out of duct tape. “Happy Mardi Gras,” it reads. He stands frozen, waiting for the celebration to begin. 

The sound is faint at first, but when the parade of krewes rounds the corner onto the plaza at 6 p.m., a symphony of trumpets, drums, tubas and trombones bursts through the air.

People flood into the square, turning it into a dancing sea of colors and sparkles.

An older gentleman frolics around in a pink leotard, tutu, tights and bright red lipstick, his shoulder-length gray hair gelled back behind his ears. Little kids run past him weighed down by dozens of beaded necklaces, sequined headbands and feather boas. At sudden intervals, the kids break out in cartwheels. 

Some people have made their own outfits for the celebration. One woman is completely hidden under a crow costume on which she glued hundreds of black feathers. Another is barely visible behind a multicolored, papier-mache dragon head. 

Others join the festivities in street clothes, beaming when fellow decked-out participants offer up handfuls of beaded necklaces. 

At the center of the crowd are the Bulltown Strutters, who have run the event for over a decade. They lead the now-packed plaza in glorious renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Second Line.” 

Kelley Grogan, a member of the krewe, marches around in a green wig carrying a sign that says “strut with us.” Her husband bangs on the drums a few feet away. Grogan’s never been to New Orleans, and this is her first Durham Mardi Gras, but she’s quite sure it won’t be her last.

“The camaraderie is amazing,” she shouts over the trumpets. “Everyone is just letting loose.”

In front of her, adults and children alike skip and hop around in circles, stomping on the bricks while they pump signs in the air. 

One little boy with reflective sunglasses climbs up onto a stool and, gripping his silver harmonica with both hands, plays a unique version of what might be “Piano Man” before star-jumping back to the ground. 

Other krewes include the Tic Tac Teauxs, the Krewe of Mischief and the Society of the Sacred Bull. 

The last, a krewe of neighborhood kids from Trinity Park, shows up with a float made of painted wood and cardboard. It’s dripping in beaded necklaces, stocked with half a dozen King Cakes and has been signed by all of the krewe’s members for the last seven years. Its wear is starting to show.

“We’re probably gonna lose a wheel tonight,” says Walt Barron, one of the krewe’s adult leaders. “But we just roll on. That’s how it works.”

After a half hour of dancing, singing and twirling about in the plaza, the Bulltown Strutters decide it’s time to begin the procession down to the Blue Note Grill, where the celebration will continue into the night.

The music stops momentarily while the musicians gather their instruments and props and prepare to leave. Then after just a few seconds, a man in a chicken suit, carrying a massive tuba, shouts “NEXT SONG!” and the Strutters oblige, starting up again with “When the Saints” as they make their way down Foster Street. 

Above: Scenes from Mardi Gras, Bull City-style. Photos by Kulsoom Rizavi – 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.

As Martin Luther King Jr Day approaches, a new city councilman reflects on race and more

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s Kitchen and former educator, was sworn into office as a Durham City Council member in December. As he begins his work representing Ward 3, COVID-19 is exacerbating racial inequalities in Durham. Looking ahead to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, The 9th Street Journal asked Williams about some of the complex challenges facing Durham, including wealth disparities, police reform and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

9th Street JournalDurham has obviously had prosperity in the last decade, but there’s a disparity: Roughly 18% of Durham’s Black residents and nearly a third of Hispanics live under the poverty line, while far fewer white people do. How can we heal these wounds?

Leonardo Williams: I’m a Black small business owner. I didn’t give up my job to run for office; we are still running our business. It’s important to have that perspective on the council. Folks naturally govern and analyze situations from their own perspective, their own lived experiences. And with Omicron being as transmissible as it is, when we shut the city down, you lose businesses, you’re going to lose jobs, and poverty is going to smack you harder than ever before. 

In regards to race and racial equity, the city made a significant move in establishing the Racial Equity Task Force. They’ve done their work and we have to follow through on those things. But also, it’s very important to ensure that we create equity. We can all do this together. We can fight for more equitable pay, pay transparency, pay worth and all of those things. And also, ask questions: Who has access to what jobs? We can be conscious of that. We can have a body of government say, “You may have a criminal record, but you can still work for the city, to a limit.” We have to shape the government to be more agile.

9th Street: The Racial Equity Task Force released some suggestions about how to deal with the wealth gap: for instance, a local reparations program, guaranteed basic income and raising the minimum wage. Do you think those are likely to take shape this year? 

LW: Those programs are great. They’re good ideas, and they’re in the right direction. But I think when we incorporate the community and partner with the private sector, we can go a lot further and can be a lot more sustainable and accountable. About reparations—for me, I do not think the most effective way to adhere to reparations is to have a one-time payout. Because our history and our disenfranchisement is so much more valuable than one payout. Generations have been taken away, I want generations back.

9th Street: The gun violence uptick has been central to the experience of Durham youth recently, including recent deaths of children. And, again, there are significant racial disparities in who is affected. What can the city do going forward on this issue?

LW: What is the most direct gateway to our youth? Education. So first of all, the city has to get more involved in  education. We can’t be disconnected from our youth because we don’t fund the education system. Teaching and learning is beyond the classroom—it’s everywhere. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has funding for afterschool programs that they are looking to disperse—additional funding that came in due to COVID. So I’ll be looking to see how we can get some of that funding in Durham. 

Our youth do not have enough to do. That’s why we find them going where they’re accepted, and that’s on the streets. I’m a Black male, a professional, I need to be spending time with other young Black men in this community. I start with my son, and just being present with him. And I have to do that for young boys in my neighborhood as well. It’s going to take engagement, basically. And I think the city can play some very formal roles in that.

9th Street: In terms of criminal justice reform, there’s the Community Safety and Wellness Task force, as well as the new Community Safety Department here in Durham. Is Durham looking towards more community-led initiatives to de-center policing?

LW: Those task forces are necessary, because if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have those ideas to build on. Ultimately, we do want to grow ourselves to be less reliant on policing the way we know it. 

We need good policing. And we have to make bad police officers feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome. You have to build a culture of policing internally where they are calling out their own. You also have to have the community doing its part. And I think that’s what the Community Safety and Wellness Taskforce does and I think that’s what the Racial Equity Task Force does. 

We’re gonna need institutional policing. I want us to rely on community policing more, but that’s the long game. 

9th Street: Housing in Durham has obviously been a huge issue that falls along racial divides, for instance when you look at who is evicted most often. And, this has been exacerbated by COVID. What can the city council do to more intentionally hit this issue? 

LW: Yeah, that’s a loaded one. I literally just got off a call with one of the residents at Braswell apartments—gosh, just emotional. I’m calling to the table property owners, residential and commercial. I’m passionate about this. First of all, housing stability is the basic foundation of doing anything that you need to do such as a jobs and transportation. 

You know, this woman I was speaking to is supposed to be looking for an apartment, but she can’t because she’s in her apartment right now with COVID. I can go on and on about these stories. So what I’m doing right now is I’m pulling together a few [leaders]. I want the government to be a partner with the private sector in  economic development. Yes, we’re gonna make money. We’re gonna be strong economically. But we’re not leaving anyone behind. We’re not pushing anybody out. And that’s what I’ll be working on. If I don’t get anything else done on city council in these four years, you will see that happen.

And what that looks like is developing a small, robust business support apparatus, where we’re not only providing technical assistance, but we’re actually going out finding business and building businesses. We’re going to honor risk-takers, we’re going to identify talent here locally, and invest in it. We’re going to bring venture capital firms here that invest in ideas here locally.

We have all of what it takes to be a beautiful, economically strong city without leaving anyone behind.

9th Street: Obviously, there’s a lot of pain there. Where is there hope for the future? 

LW: You know, COVID has provided us somewhat of a reset. And while it’s, yes, survival of the fittest, it’s also a time where the playing field gets even, is leveling out, where it’s hard for everybody.—where you can take a chance and better yourself. Because it’s hard for everybody. So I think that’s a reason for everybody to be hopeful, just creating more access to opportunity. That’s what we’re gonna focus on.

The search for Durham’s best side of mac and cheese

At a barbecue restaurant, meat is the main event. But no heaping serving of Durham barbecue — whether pulled, chopped, wet, or dry — can stand alone. It needs sides, be they slaw, beans or something more adventurous. For me, the most important side is mac and cheese, and Durham chefs keep it simple. 

Regardless of the restaurant, the foundation is the same: a classic macaroni elbow—farfalle or ditalini would be sacrilegious—and always well-cooked. Al dente is a foreign concept to a pitmaster. When it comes to cheese, cheddar is a safe bet and powder is a possibility, but there shouldn’t be anything along the lines of an aged parmigiano-reggiano. A few daring chefs will sprinkle in some black pepper, but there’s no place for the likes of lobster or truffle oil, which may be tastefully (or pretentiously) added at a restaurant where plates aren’t separated into quadrants. 

To figure out who does it best, I embarked on a mac and cheese tour of Durham. In two weeks, I visited five barbecue restaurants, reporter’s notebook in hand, and sampled—or, more accurately, indulged in—each version of the treasured side. Here’s what I found.

Backyard BBQ Pit: A Guilty Pleasure

The lunchtime crowd has formed a line to the door at the Backyard BBQ Pit when I arrive. I spend my wait digesting the sprawling chalkboard menu, admiring the graffiti-covered walls, and gawking at the overflowing cafeteria style buffet. 

“What can I getcha, baby doll?” asks my server once I reach the front of the line. The steam rising from the buffet table fogs its plexiglass barrier, so she walks me through the sides in a friendly southern drawl. She tells me that I shouldn’t miss out on the candied yams, which she prepares from scratch every morning. There isn’t enough room in one black styrofoam takeout container for all of her recommendations, so I find myself at the checkout counter with two combo platters and four different sides (candied yams included).

I open the container to find a heaping side of mac and cheese, spilling out of its quadrant and shining with the oily glow of melted cheddar. I reach for my plastic fork, but soon find that this mac and cheese demands a spoon as I can’t afford to have any of the cheesy sauce slip through the tines. 

The star of this dish is the generously apportioned cheddar cheese that envelops the elbows. It mixes with collard greens and sweet potato in the happiest of accidents as the sides begin to blend together, creating new flavor combinations. After polishing off the last spoonful, I notice a small pool of oil where the mac and cheese once rested. Usually this would concern me, but I remind myself that Backyard BBQ’s mac and cheese is not meant to be refined (or healthy); It’s comfort food, and if an ungodly amount of cheddar cheese is required to make it right, so be it.

The Pit: Home Cooked Charm

Once seated at a high-top table with my feet dangling above the floor, my server brings over a complimentary basket brimming with biscuits and hushpuppies and invites me to take all the time I need with the laminated menu. Her friendliness is a welcome counterpoint to the ominous collection of cleavers that adorn the red wall to my right. 

At The Pit, globs of melted, stringy cheese. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

My side of mac and cheese comes congealed in its small white bowl, shaped as if plated with an ice cream scooper. The yellow dome is flecked with black pepper and intermittent globs of melted, stringy cheddar cheese. My mouth doesn’t water, but I pick up my fork and break into the sphere. 

At first, I’m disappointed by the texture—a graininess in the sauce and overcooked noodles—but then the flavor surprises me. This mac and cheese tastes homemade, like your grandma cooked it for the family reunion (and maybe left it on the boiler a few minutes too long). At first, the dominant flavor is white cheddar: mild, creamy, and subtly salty. But then, a pleasant black pepper kick rises from the back of my tongue, interrupted by the occasional hidden cheddar gob, delightfully chewy and sharp. The mixture of cheeses and spices don’t melt together seamlessly, leaving the sauce separated in places, but this gives the dish character. Like a home cooked meal, you can tell it’s made from scratch.

Picnic: Dorm Room Throwback

Less than 30 seconds elapse between the moment I place my order at Picnic and when I’m handed my mac and cheese in a folded brown paper bag with my name on it. At one of Picnic’s outdoor wooden tables, I open the bag to find a packed plastic deli container, yellow elbows pressed against its clear lid. 

Picnic’s mac and cheese seemed to have spent too much time in boiling water. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

My fork pierces the noodles with ease, a sign of too much time spent in boiling water. Indeed, Picnic’s mac and cheese is meant for the lazy patron, it requires little chewing as the noodles break apart with no effort. The cheese sauce is sticky. It lingers after I swallow, coating the roof of my mouth. Its primary flavor is Velveeta, with a slightly sweet and tangy aftertaste from the addition of pimento cheese. 

Eating Picnic’s mac and cheese won’t be a new or surprising flavor experience, but it will transport you back to the microwavable meals of your college years, and it’s that familiarity that keeps my fork returning to the container. 

Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue: An Afterthought

As the waitress takes me to my table at Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue, I walk past the restaurant’s “wall of fame,” crowded with signed pictures from celebrity patrons, including Joe Biden and the former editor in chief of Vogue. Once in the dining room, I can’t help but notice that I am one of the few patrons without gray hair.  For a weekday lunch, the restaurant’s brown leather booths are remarkably full with regulars who don’t bother opening their menus. My waitress tells me that she’s been working here for over 20 years and serving certain customers daily for just as long. 

Unfortunately, while the rest of Bullock’s feels deeply authentic, the mac and cheese does not. The elbows are cooked well, but the bright yellow sauce that coats them is bland and chalky. Its one-note taste resembles cheddar cheese, but its grittiness and plasticky aftertaste suggests a sauce made from powder. That along with the pasty mouth-feel compels me to retire my fork after a few bites. Bullock’s homey atmosphere and warm service made me want to love their mac and cheese, but it didn’t stack up. The restaurant’s barbeque certainly lives up to its reputation, but the mac and cheese tastes like an afterthought. 

The Original Q Shack: All-Around Champion 

The first thing I note when I walk into Q Shack isn’t the dark red walls or the glowing neon signs or the taxidermied bull’s head. I happen to arrive at Q Shack as a fresh tray of baked mac and cheese is placed into the steam table. I watch, mesmerized, as the server breaks into the cheesy shell with a spoon and transfers hefty, steaming scoops of elbows into paper containers. 

The winner. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

Metal cafeteria tray in hand, I slide in among the lunch crowd on a colorful vinyl chair and carefully consider which part of the mac and cheese I should try first. A crispy bite from the top? A silky forkful from the middle? One of the chewy, cheesy clusters sprinkled throughout? Settling on a surface bite, I dig my fork in and lift it up, watching strings of cheddar stretch and pull. 

The sauce is sticky and tastes sharp and salty with a hint of black pepper. The noodles near the surface have dried ever so slightly so they crunch, while the ones in the middle are soft and tender, but not mushy or broken. No other restaurant achieved this textural variation. Before each bite, my fork wanders above the noodles as I’m momentarily unable to decide how to craft the next one. 

This mac and cheese is so enjoyable, I hardly remember to eat the chopped pork that is intended as the main dish. Once I do, I eat it only sparingly to save room for the rest of the macaroni. 

Photo at top: Q Shack’s side of mac and cheese, with a helping of hush puppies on the left. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal 

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

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