Don Pinney, owner of the iconic Sutton’s Drug Store on East Franklin Street, would like to invite you to lunch.
“We want [alumni] to know we’re open, we miss them, and we want them to come have a cheeseburger,” he said.
Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) moved North Carolina into Phase 2 of the state’s pandemic restrictions on May 22, allowing more businesses to reopen or expand their activities. That meant restaurants could open dining rooms at up to half capacity. During the Phase 1 stay-at-home order, Sutton’s and many other restaurants served only takeout orders and hoped that would be enough to survive.
While the looser restrictions of Phase 2 are welcome, businesses are still faced with many challenges providing safe environments for staff and customers, as well as making the economics work.
Opening for dine-in service at only half capacity is “definitely not cost-effective,” Pinney said. He’s running minimal staff and scheduling only one shift, which means the diner now closes at 2:30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. and is down to 100 to 200 orders a day. Before the pandemic, “we could serve 200 people in a blink,” he said.
Phase 2 allows restaurants with patio seating to open those outside areas as well, provided guests can maintain adequate social distancing, but Sutton’s has no outdoor seating. Sutton’s did rehire some staff after receiving a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, and the landlord has allowed the long-term tenant — “We’ve been paying rent for 97 years,” Pinney said — to defer some payments.
While he and many Franklin Street business owners are excited at the prospect of students returning to campus in August, the impact of COVID-19 on revenue has been “like having a six-month summer,” Pinney said, twice as long as the usual seasonal slow period.
Even with UNC’s plan to have students return, the fall semester forecast is for another season of uncertainty. As the NCAA and conferences develop plans for fall sports, the University has started bringing back sports staff and athletes in phases and pondering if and how football fans might be able to watch games in Kenan Stadium. Many downtown restaurants count on business from football Saturdays to carry them through the slow winter break.
Meanwhile, Pinney is looking forward to the state loosening restrictions even more so he can serve a full dining room.
“Hopefully, we’ll still be here,” he said. “I have a feeling that the landscape of Franklin Street will change dramatically.”
While several restaurants have closed temporarily during the restrictions, there already have been a few permanent losses on Franklin Street. In April, Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza on the corner of West Franklin and North Columbia streets called it quits. Kipos Greek Taverna closed its doors in The Courtyard on West Franklin, though it hopes to eventually reopen in a new location. Market Street Coffee closed all of its locations in June.
Linda’s Bar and Grill, which closed for 12 weeks during Phase 1, has peeled the plywood off its plate-glass windows, flipped it over and converted one panel into a chalkboard to post a daily menu for the sidewalk seating of Phase 2.
Manager Eric Clayton ’17 said the restaurant has made a number of changes that likely will become permanent. Linda’s now offers family meal boxes customers can take home to heat up for dinner. It’s getting a delivery system up and running, and it has put together rent-a-picnic baskets so diners can take meals across Franklin Street to eat under the shade of the ancient oaks on UNC’s McCorkle Place.
Owner Chris Carini is remodeling the upstairs into a dining room fit for chancellors. He has years of experience managing upscale restaurants up and down the East Coast, including opening the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Durham.
“I still have my fine-dining roots,” Carini said. “Our food is on caliber with anything on the street. We’ll have a nice place for people to sit down and have business lunches and dinners.”
But not yet. “I’ve been a business guy all my life; I listen to numbers,” he said. He’ll wait to open the new dining room once the COVID-19 infection rates have dropped and people feel safe going out to eat.
Eventually, Carini might auction off those plywood panels with customers’ well wishes written on them, but for now he’s holding onto them in case the pandemic forces the economy to pull back again.
Carolina Coffee Shop, approaching its centennial on Franklin Street in a couple of years, also closed entirely during the initial stay-at-home order but reopened as soon as Phase 2 allowed table service. The coffee shop has sidewalk dining and is pushing takeout to maximize its revenue stream.
The business relies almost entirely on UNC students for its staff, and many students have not returned to town. The coffee shop has reduced its hours, said general manager Kyle Shea.
“We’re kind of in wait-and-see, like everyone else,” Shea said. “There are a lot of things we can’t predict right now. We still want to be a welcoming place where everyone in the community can eat, drink, hang out with friends. We’re just doing it with slightly fewer tables and chairs.”
Next door, Blue Spoon Microcreamery offered takeout, pickup and the occasional delivery during Phase 1 and reopened its dining area in May, said Cindy Somasunderam, who runs the ice cream and espresso shop with her husband, Dave.
Now that Phase 2 allows them to have 20 customers in their store at a time, will that be sufficient to make their business profitable?
“We’ll see,” she said. “We’re taking it one day at a time. Nobody really knows what the future holds, but we’re prepared to adapt as necessary.”
Blue Spoon staff must wear face masks at all times, and customers must mask up in the ordering and serving area. The frequent hand washing and disinfecting work spaces are best practices that those in the food industry have done all along.
Regardless of the phases of restrictions, Blue Spoon continues to churn out its blue chocolate ice cream. “No matter what challenges the world is facing right now, we aim to be a bright spot in your day,” Somasunderam said.
When Sup Dogs moved from West Franklin to East Franklin, the hot dog vendor created an outdoor dining alcove. Customers are taking full advantage, and manager Claire Perry has found space for extra tables on the sidewalk.
“We’re finding seating wherever we could,” Perry said.
Tape on the tables helps customers keep 6 feet apart. All food arrives wrapped. Sup Dogs installed hand-sanitizing stations, replaced its laminated menus with paper ones that are thrown out after each use and supplies masks and gloves to servers.
“We’re keeping an eye on the new Orange County guidelines,” Perry said, which are slightly stricter than state orders, such as placing smaller limits on the number of diners at one table.
The business received a Payroll Protection Plan loan, enabling it to keep all staff on the payroll. “No one missed a paycheck,” she said, and she’s optimistic about the future.
“People are ready to get out and about now,” she said. “We’re super excited to hear that students are coming back.”
On West Franklin Street, David Sutton ’92 operates D.B. Sutton & Co., a diversified business that proved adaptive to the phased reopening. His wine shop toward the back of the shop was considered an “essential business” in Phase 1, and Phase 2 freed him to reopen his hair salon at the front. He said clients have been very happy to once again have a professional haircut.
“A lot of people didn’t feel comfortable doing it on their own,” he said.
Beyond the state’s basic safety guidance for salons, such as sanitizing, distancing and requiring that staff wear masks — a practice the state encourages but Orange County requires for customers as well — Sutton did his own research that showed face shields offered stylists more protection than masks alone. But it’s hard to stay in that gear for hours on end, so he books only seven hours of appointments a day.
Sutton also spreads time between clients for extra sanitizing and has done away with blow-drying. Only two stylists are in the shop at a time, working at opposite ends. He takes the temperature of all clients as they arrive and requires that they wash their hands, along with wearing masks.
Sutton is relieved that Orange County requires people to wear masks in public places. Masks have become politicized, he said, and he has seen too many young people walking by his shop who don’t seem to take the pandemic seriously.
“They may survive because they’re young,” he said, “but their older next-door neighbor might not.”
— Nancy E. Oates