How some defiant and determined restaurateurs are launching new establishments amidst an industry meltdown.
You may not have to be crazy to start a new restaurant these days, but it probably helps. The truth is, being a restaurateur has never been easy. Cornell University research has found that about a quarter of new restaurants fail in the first year; after five years, as many as six in 10 are out of business. About 16,000 U.S. restaurants were estimated to have closed permanently through July as a result of the coronavirus, according to business review website Yelp.
Still, the three clear-eyed entrepreneurs who share their stories below are convinced they can make it work, even in a time of pandemic. “I know the human instinct is to share time with friends, to be around people you care about and to do it with food,” says Lisa Callaghan, founder of Plum Southern Kitchen & Bar in Durham. “That hasn’t changed.”
Callaghan is a recent transplant to Durham and founder of the soon-to-open Plum. The 62-year-old daughter of the late Jack Callaghan, a Charlotte television executive from 1958 to 1995, she spent many years in New York City’s restaurant scene, working as director of culinary relations for cookware company All-Clad during the 1980s and, with her late husband, Patrick, starting a cafe on Long Island.
A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, Callaghan always considered North Carolina home and in 2017, she returned, attracted to Durham by what she describes as “the energy, the diversity, the rough around the edges” nature of the city. It was a place in transition, and the neighborhood where she chose to live, known as Central Park, was in the middle of it, with a growing food scene. She leased an apartment on Foster Street, built on the site of the old Liberty tobacco warehouse. “Downtown had this great activity,” she says. “It felt like things were happening here.”
The idea for Plum had been bouncing around her head for many years. Five years before she left New York, in 2012, her husband died, turning her life upside down. “I was suddenly thrust into this world where I was alone,” she says. This experience was still fresh in her mind as the plans for her new restaurant began to take shape. “I knew I wanted a place where women could feel comfortable,” she says.
When Callaghan began work on what would be Plum in May 2019, it seemed like another age. The economy was humming along, the stock market was hitting record highs, and unemployment was at historical lows. Durham’s skyline was dotted with construction cranes. It looked like a great time to start a restaurant. Callaghan signed a lease for space on Washington Street and hired an architect to design the new site. Demolition began just after Christmas and was done by January. Her dream was rapidly assuming a brick-and-mortar reality.
In February, there were rumblings of a virus but in the U.S., there was still a sense it was all somebody else’s problem. Then came March. On the 17th, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he was shutting down the state’s bars and restaurants.
“It was kind of surreal,” Callaghan says.
By then, she was sitting on a space that was still more construction site than restaurant, and a sunk cost equal to roughly two-thirds of the total budget. “I thought, ‘I can pull out now and cut my losses,’” Callaghan says. She stopped construction in May, but she didn’t fold. Instead, she began to pivot and to reimagine what the opening of Plum might look like.
The 3,500-square-foot restaurant is located in what was Durham’s old municipal garage, built in 1927. It sits across from a six-story fire-drill tower, erected in 1928 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a hundred yards or so from the original Durham Bulls baseball park. It features large east-facing bay windows and 20-foot ceilings supported by a trusswork of steel girders. One wall is dominated by an 18-foot-long bar made of wormy maple.
The seating arrangement will now be significantly different from what Callaghan originally envisioned, as circumstances forced a shift from indoor dining to takeout. She plans to turn what would have been an 1,100-square-foot event space with its own bar into a series of pop-up retail stores featuring local artists and artisans starting in late fall.
“We’ll have some tables inside where people can sit, but the emphasis initially will be on takeout and family-sized meals,” she says. One thing that hasn’t changed: the kitchen, the heart and soul of the restaurant. Representing nearly 25% of the total cost, it was an obvious place to cut but without it, Callaghan knew that Plum wouldn’t be the restaurant she envisioned, now or in the future.
The initial menu will be built around an offering of Southern tapas, sourced locally and inspired by traditional regional recipes. The cooking will be done in a low-temperature, slow-cook Old Hickory Pit smoker oven, likely a Durham first, according to Callaghan. “My brother [who founded and runs Carrboro restaurant Acme] says that Southern food has been given the gift of poverty. Because the region was historically poor, we’ve had to be inventive. That’s what we’re doing here.”
To bring the menu to life, Callaghan imported a chef from California, 26-year-old Trenton Shank, who most recently worked as both the farmer and chef at the Fess Parker Farm in California’s Santa Barbara County. Shank came to Durham sight unseen; his parents drove up from Georgia to scope out the house where he and his new wife will live. Shank had been looking for an opportunity to come east. “It was the love of the food and the camaraderie that convinced me to come to Plum and Durham,” Shank says.
The pace of work is accelerating as an opening in November nears, with Callaghan both directing the tradesmen and taking a hand in various tasks like painting. Surprisingly, she professes to have experienced few sleepless nights after the initial shock back in the spring. She is firmly convinced that restaurants have a future and that one of these will be Plum.
VANA AND THE BARDO
If one were inclined to wordplay, it would be tempting to note that Vana, a new restaurant from Charlotte’s Jayson Whiteside and Michael Noll, was nearly caught in the “Bardo” by the advent of the nationwide shutdown. Not Bardo, the highly regarded restaurant the pair launched in May 2018, but the between-worlds purgatory as understood by the Buddhists and popularized in the best-selling 2017 novel by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo.
But that wouldn’t be quite right. In truth, Vana, which can be translated as a “wood” or “thicket,” opened for business in late August in the city’s South End neighborhood. The space is defined by a fire hearth and wood-fired pizza oven, an open architectural style with exposed infrastructure, and two garage doors that can be raised to soak in the energy from the street outside. Bardo, which offers a more formal dining experience, sits a few blocks away.
“A broker showed us the space in April last year and by May, we were working on the new restaurant,” Whiteside says.
The 40-year-old Whiteside and Noll, 38, converged on Charlotte from Phoenix and Chicago, respectively, though Whiteside grew up in Marion in western North Carolina. Whiteside and Noll’s wife attended Appalachian State University, but the two men met for the first time in Chicago, where Noll was honing his craft at Moto, Schwa and other restaurants.
Arriving in the Queen City, they recognized that the restaurant scene was “on the rise, but there were a couple of holes in the market,” as Whiteside puts it. Both Bardo and Vana reflect the culinary vision of Noll, whom Whiteside describes as exhibiting “OCD [tendencies] about food and plating and sourcing.”
Noll had been catapulted into the restaurant business two decades prior when, as a teenager, he broke a bone in his wrist in a skateboard accident. He didn’t have it set, and a few years later, it came back to haunt him. He kept skateboarding and ended up having multiple surgeries, after which his mother suggested that it was time to find a “real job.” He started washing dishes in a Pittsburgh restaurant, a real enough task where he was first exposed to the camaraderie of the kitchen and fell in love with food. Noll decided to hang up the skateboard and began working his way up the culinary ladder.
Now, with Vana, Noll is looking to return to “root cooking — no gas, all wood fire, local ingredients done well.” The setting is more casual than Bardo, dominated by the hearth. “It’s the focal point, for sure,” Noll says. “When you’re sitting there eating, that’s all you see: the fire.”
As with Callaghan and Plum, Vana’s owners entered the new year full of optimism. Because they were already running a restaurant, they were a little more sensitive to the shift in the winds. “In February, we started to see things happen and were a little nervous,” Whiteside says. “We knew by the beginning of March that we weren’t going to be able to open. We stopped everything.”
Their reaction to the government-mandated closure mirrored Callaghan’s. “We were scared to death,” Whiteside says. They had planned to fund Vana in part from cash flow from Bardo, but suddenly both were in trouble. “I was in shock,” Noll says. “I was in a very dark place.”
Noll wanted to shut down everything for a few months and regroup, but Whiteside was having none of that. “Jayson said to me, ‘People who stop, fail,’” Noll says. “He brought me back into the light.”
They didn’t stop, but they did shift gears, suspending hiring at Vana and opening negotiations with the landlord over the rent. They moved to takeout at Bardo and reconfigured the menu, offering among other things to-go cocktail kits — ultimately selling about 4,000. With some cash still coming in, they believed they could keep going. “We weren’t making much money, but we were able to keep the lights on,” Whiteside says. “We knew this shutdown couldn’t go on forever.”
With Bardo, which was running, they were able to apply for a PPP loan and received $90,000. There was no such opportunity with Vana, then in startup mode. But with $498,000 of a $525,000 budget already invested, they were all in. Vana opened on Aug. 13 with 36 dine-in seats, half of capacity, and a small takeout business. Whiteside describes the response so far as “surprising. We definitely did not expect the turnout we’ve seen so far.”
He has no doubt they did the right thing. “We put too much work into the space not to open,” he says.
The Grove Arcade is indeed a proper space, occupying a full block in downtown Asheville. Originally conceived as the base of a never-finished 14-story high-rise, the building was constructed in the mid-1920s and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Its builder, the tonic magnate E.W. Grove, relocated to Asheville from St. Louis for health reasons and was also responsible for the nearby Grove Park Inn.
In November 2019, husband-and-wife team Mindi and Owen McGlynn signed a lease for a previously occupied restaurant space in the Grove, along with partners Russell and Mercy Joseph. The planned restaurant, called Asheville Proper, expected to launch in the first quarter of 2020. The concept: an open-fire Argentinian-style grill and a “live-fire” dining experience based on a locally sourced, meat-centric menu. Demolition began in early January with an anticipated six-week build-out.
They called it ”Asheville Proper” Mindi says, because “we are truly trying to be proper in the way we are doing things in both food and service.” Plus, she adds, “it’s located in Asheville proper,” meaning the heart of the city.
Mindi, 32, and Owen, 42, arrived in Asheville in 2011. Prior to the move, Owen spent several years as sous chef at High Cotton in Charleston, S.C., where he had attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. Mindi, a native of Greenville, S.C., was staying at home, looking after the couple’s four kids. Owen learned his way around the Asheville restaurant scene during eight years working as executive chef at the Storm Rhum Bar, which he helped launch. In a statement announcing the planned launch of Asheville Proper, they described cooking over a wood fire as “an art form that deserves to be shared.”
But as the project moved into early February, the shadow of COVID-19 started to loom. “We watched the first case of the virus emerge in Washington, and then there was another one and another one,” Mindi says. “By early February, it was showing up in Buncombe County.”
Everything slowed down. Work crews were staggered to limit the number of people in the space. The opening date slipped back, and construction costs grew by about 30% as a result of the delays. But quitting wasn’t really an option. They were 75% invested when things shut down. To walk away would mean losing that money and giving up on the dream. “We were so far in that it didn’t cross our minds [to stop],” Mindi says. “We realized this was just one more thing we would have to get through. We were confident that the restaurant business would return.”
The restaurant opened for friends and family in early August and to the public on Aug. 6, about six months later than originally envisioned and at 50% capacity for indoor seating (44 of 88 seats), plus a large outdoor patio space. While they are all about the food, the McGlynns have worked hard to make diners feel comfortable in the art deco space. “We want people to feel and to be safe,” Mindi says.
That’s important, according to Jane Anderson, the executive director of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, which represents about 150 local restaurants. She says that she hears from a lot of diners who want an outdoor eating option. She is certain that most restaurant owners will adapt. “I am constantly amazed when I see what these restaurateurs are doing in the face of everything that’s been thrown their way.”
So far, there have been remarkably few permanent shutdowns in Asheville, according to Anderson, who says “about six” restaurants have closed so far, some of those “second locations.” The fallout has been more severe among the chain operators and those not owned locally.
“No one thought the restrictions imposed in March would still be in place six months later. ” says Mindi, adding that, going forward, “no one knows what the restaurant business will look like.”
But at least they are no longer staring into the abyss.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DREAM
Launching a new restaurant in the face of a pandemic requires a bit of magical thinking, but that’s nothing new for committed entrepreneurs. For many in the food industry, it’s about more than just the money.
“I think about my grandparents, how I felt when I sat at the table with them as a child,” says Plum’s Callaghan. “If I can recreate that feeling here, I would be so happy. I’ll spend every last penny I have to make it work.” ■