Durham's booming food scene drawing attention, as restauranteurs work to address challenges

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Monday, July 3, 2023
Durham's booming food scene drawing attention
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Downtown Durham Inc. lists more than 130 restaurants and bars in downtown alone, offering different cuisines and price points.

As Bernice Olulu walked around Durham Food Hall Monday morning with her husband and daughter, she was impressed with all the offerings.

"You don't have to feel like you're siloed to just one type of food. So this is exciting because Indian food is very close to Kenyan food, so my husband wants that. I'm probably going to get that (as well), but) my daughter wants pizza, so she's going to get that," said Olulu, a Kenyan native who moved from New Jersey to Durham eight months ago.

The Durham Food Hall, which borders Central Park on Foster Street, has ten vendors inside. Downtown Durham Inc. lists more than 130 restaurants and bars in downtown alone, offering different cuisines and price points.

"It's like you kind of have to push the envelope all the more. You have to be a little bit more edgy in the food that you're putting out. And you have to really focus on quality a little bit harder because there's more competition coming constantly," explained Ray Williams, who serves as Culinary Director at Everything Bagels, Napoli Pizza and Corner Yaki, which all operate inside Durham Food Hall.

"We like to say that 90% of our downtown restaurants and merchants started in North Carolina," said Nicole Thompson, President and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc.

Thompson also pointed to the impact of events that draw big crowds, allowing opportunities for businesses to capitalize.

"We have the Carolina Theater, we have the Durham Performing Arts Center, we have the Durham Bulls. And then we have a number of small venues like the Pinhook and Motorco. So all of these eclectic mix mixes and diversity of entertainment options bring people in. And then we just try to keep them here a little bit longer," said Thompson.

"I would definitely say sales have shown an increase," noted Williams.

Harry Monds first opened up a restaurant downtown in the 1990s. He closed it after seven years, though has continued to work in the food industry. His latest project, Lula and Sadie's opened up in its new location on Chapel Hill Road a couple of months ago, after operating out of Durham Food Hall.

"One of the concerns was opening this time of year, (there) is typically a lull during the summertime. And we've kind of fought that a little bit because of the excitement and the tremendous support we've been getting from the community," said Monds.

Describing the restaurant as a fine Southern eatery, Monds highlighted the city's history of diverse offerings.

"The food scene in Durham is by my estimation the best in the state," said Monds.

The US Census Bureau estimated Durham's population as of last July to be about 330,000 people, growing by nearly 25% since 2010. The population growth has been fueled by large-scale job announcements and new developments, which have led to booming real estate prices. According to Triangle MLS, in the spring of 2019, the average sales price for a home in Durham County was just under $300,000; this past May, it was approaching $460,000.

"Some staff members like they can't survive unless they have two or three roommates. You know, and then, like, they're putting up half their paycheck just to make ends meet, just to have the house over their head. I think if we keep driving those real estate costs up, it's just going to push everybody out," said Williams.

"We do need to focus on that missing middle. How do we address the individuals that are at 80 to 120% (of the Area Median Income)? And those folks that are just out of college and want to be in downtown and be able to go to the local bars and the local restaurants? How do we make sure that there's a space for them as well," said Thompson, who credited work at a city and county level to address affordable housing.

Monds, a Durham native, shared mixed feelings on growth and redevelopment.

"I would suggest that as many restaurants try to find a way to run that same kind of model of making sure the staff is taken care of it with their pay and it takes a sacrifice on the owner's part to make that happen. I don't get as big a piece of the pie from what we bring in," said Monds.

Williams said his restaurants offer wages above minimum wage, on top of tips and incentives. Still, he believes larger-scale efforts to improve livability would help with staffing challenges.

"You have to really rely on public transportation. Public transportation isn't here. We don't have a reliable bus system. We don't have a train. We know there's no light rail system that we're bringing from point A to point B," said

Williams added that paid parking is another issue workers are facing.

Expanding those options is part of the goals behind the Durham County Transit Plan, which calls on additional routes, later service times, and micro transit zones, amongst other changes.

Click on Boomtowns to see what other areas are booming in North Carolina.