New Durham restaurants adjust to COVID-19 concerns

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Newly-opened and soon-to-be opened restaurants in Durham are adjusting to the new COVID-19 dining norms and risks associated with starting a business in a pandemic.

Seth Gross sees potential in the old Chick-fil-A South Square site in Durham. He's converting it into a taproom and full service restaurant, at considerable expense.

"I love this location. I've been eyeing it for several years while it was still in operation with a chain, and as soon as it became available I said 'I really want to get in on this,'" he said. "I love the traffic counts here. I love the vibe, the energy that there's a lot happening over here. But there was definitely a lack of independent diverse restaurants. More chains, more fast food kind of things."

Gross came up with the concept while operating two other restaurants in downtown Durham.

"They're doing great, well, as great as you can during a pandemic. But for me, it was time to start bringing something to a new part of town. And I live on this side of Durham, I happen to live closer to this way, and when I'd go out to eat I felt I didn't have a lot of choices. So I wanted to bring an independent local restaurant to this side of town, and the reception's been phenomenal so far just doing takeout."

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But an unexpected development forced his to revise the conversion: COVID-19.

"I tell you, if you make a list of great ideas, opening a restaurant during a pandemic should not be on that list! Had I not been already under construction and forced to, because rent was coming due, I would not have opened. I would have tried to delay," said Gross. "Well, as it turned out, COVID hit and I realized I had this great asset of a drive-thru which a lot of restaurants would beg to have right now. So I stopped everything, I said, 'let's just close up the shell, and we'll use the drive-thru as a safe way for people to come and have a drive through experience, feel like it was a comfortable way to order food online.'"

He's cooking and serving, but not as much as his original concept:

"Right now our menu, which was not the plan at all, is burritos, giant burritos, rotisserie chicken and soft serve ice cream. Those are three of the components in the eventual full service restaurant but right now seem to make the most sense for traveling," Gross said. "This has been in the works for over two years, and the strategy quickly evolved to 'Let's just get the outer shell done, get the kitchen cleaned and ready to go, and let's open with takeout food to at least have some revenue coming in.' And then when this pandemic is over someday, we're gonna have a full restaurant here with indoor dining, outdoor dining and the whole works. Beer, wine," he said.

Gross isn't the only restaurant owner who sees south Durham as a good bet for expansion. James Beard Award winner Chef Ashley Christensen has a "coming soon" sign up on a University Hill building, a short drive away from another restaurant that's about to open in a month: Alpaca Peruvian Charcoal Chicken.
Ruby Bakhshi's family owns the popular chain that started back in 2007 near the Bull City's downtown area. Why are they taking a chance with a new one, at a time when state-mandated customer capacity restrictions could affect profits?

"Well, we love Durham," she said. "This is where we started, like you said. And there's a lot going on in this area."

Gross agrees. "And I know it's about to explode. I wasn't the first to observe that. I'm hopefully in early but yeah, there's gonna be a lot of folks coming to this side of town. I think it's gonna be a new hotspot in Durham," he said. "You just go straight down the road and you're into Chapel Hill. You have the whole south side of Durham here, there's a lot of bedroom communities and a lot of families. And our restaurants are very family focused, so it seemed like a really good fit. When this is open, we are gonna have a full taproom. We'll have beer, wine, cocktails, indoor dining, outdoor dining, fire pit. It's gonna be a great experience."

But with no end in sight for coronavirus-related restrictions, when can they begin anything close to a normal operation level at these restaurants?

"I would love to say next year but honestly, I don't know," said Gross. "There'll be a time when people are allowed to do that, but will they be comfortable and feel okay? Will we have to operate with far fewer tables? I don't know any restauranteur with a business plan that says, 'let's see if we can make work at 50 percent, or 25 percent' because it isn't gonna work. So that's the big question. Hopefully with a combination of takeout and some indoor-outdoor dining, we can get to a place where we are sustainable."

His restaurant is open for drive-thru and walk up lunch and dinner. The new Alpaca, located at the former South Square Boston Market site, is scheduled to open in about a month.
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