Photo by Christer Berg
Not long after opening Bull City Burger and Brewery in March 2011, Seth Gross got a phone call with a message no restaurant owner wants to hear. On the line was his meat supplier, Durham-based Firsthand Foods: “Seth, you’re so busy, we don’t have meat for you tomorrow,” he recalls. “I didn’t sleep that night. It’s not like I can say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have burgers — try the chicken today.’ We are a burger restaurant.”
The problem was that Gross’ business plan is based on exclusively serving pasture-raised beef from North Carolina farms. His concept — and his kitchen design — also was based on selling an estimated 200-250 burgers a day, far fewer than the 900-1,000 the restaurant sometimes plates on a busy Saturday.
“We were really supply constrained,” says Jennifer Curtis, co-founder of Firsthand Foods, which also was just starting out at the time. Her business helps small farmers market their meats to restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses. “We just didn’t know enough of the farmers raising beef to our standards.” So, Gross got in his car and drove from farm to farm, picking up 10 pounds of meat here and 10 pounds there until the issue was resolved.
Nearly eight years later, Bull City supports more than 30 beef farmers in the state. As Firsthand Foods’ biggest restaurant customer — the brewpub goes through about 1,000 pounds of beef a week — it no longer has to worry about supply-chain issues. “They are a valued institution, really committed to making a difference in their local community and in North Carolina by supporting small-scale farmers,” Curtis says.
Gross, a chef, sommelier and brewmaster whose résumé includes working with famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, is uncompromising in his mission to serve locally grown and made-from-scratch products: The lettuce, tomatoes, arugula and other produce served at the Durham brewpub are sourced from local farms, and nearly everything is made in-house, including the fresh-baked buns, mayonnaise, pickles, hot sauce and ice cream.
That passion for supporting local vendors and engaging the community, along with a strong commitment to fostering employee growth and well-being, is why Bull City Burger and Brewery was selected by a trio of judges as Business North Carolina’s 2018 Small Business of the Year.
Growing up in Boston, where his family owned ice-cream shops, Gross, 49, always loved kitchens. In high school, he told his parents he wanted to attend Culinary Institute of America, the premier U.S. school for chefs-in-training in Hyde Park, N.Y. “They said, ‘There is no way in hell you’re going to spend your life cooking in restaurants. You are going to college,’” he says. Gross obliged, studying microbiology and cell science at the University of Florida.
As graduation approached, he applied to medical school. “But I was fooling myself; I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to cook.”
So instead of med school, he headed to CIA, earning a degree in culinary arts. He went on to work at Chicago’s Ambria, a five-diamond French restaurant, before meeting the late Trotter. He spent several years working for the award-winning chef, then joined Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. before the craft brewer’s 2011 sale to Anheuser-Busch.
A growing interest in wine brought Gross to North Carolina in the late ’90s, when he became the first sommelier at Chapel Hill’s Siena Hotel. After a stint running the wine department at Whole Foods Markets’ Chapel Hill store, he and a business partner opened a wine shop in Durham in 2007 called Wine Authorities.
“It did really, really well, but the problem for me was I didn’t make [the wine]. I love working with my hands, and so I really needed to get back to restaurants,” he says. The shop did enable him to make connections that helped finance the launch of Bull City Burger and Brewery.
When Gross opened the 108-seat restaurant in a long-vacant space that had housed an accounting firm, Durham’s “foodie” scene was just emerging. From 2011-17, the number of restaurants in the core downtown area more than doubled to about 37, and several new hotels have opened to support Durham Performing Arts Center and Durham Convention Center, says Melissa Muir, director of operations and programs at the Downtown Durham booster organization.
Gross was “very conscious about trying to re-source and reuse materials” in the million-dollar upfit of the space, Muir says. Butcher-block tables are made from recycled high-school lab benches, and the bar is made of recycled paper and bamboo.
Customers order at a counter, and the atmosphere is simple and relaxed. But patrons seeking a typical burger-chain value meal might want to look elsewhere. Though the menu consists of burgers and hot dogs, “we treat the food like fine dining,” Gross says, noting that pasture-raised beef costs about four times as much as corn-fed beef. One of Bull City’s goals is to educate people about the food they eat.
“We pay less for our food in America as a percentage of our income than any nation on the planet. [Americans] don’t really prioritize the food.” Despite higher food costs, Gross says he is able to keep prices down — burgers start at $8 — because of higher margins on beer sales. “Beer subsidizes our burgers,” he says. Favoring authentic styles, Bull City brews 60 different types of beer, with eight rotating taps. Its Starlite Black Nite, a traditional German dark lager, won best in show at the 2017 N.C. Brewers Cup. Like many of Bull City’s beers, the name is a reference to Durham’s past, in this case the Starlite drive-in movie theater that opened in the 1940s.
Bull City’s concept has resonated with customers. Revenue has grown steadily since 2011, with the exception of one year when Gross says several new restaurants opened nearby. He’s paid back his original investors, and sales over the last 12 months are up 10.7% to more than $2 million. Sales at sibling Pompieri Pizza, which Gross opened in 2013, have climbed 9% over the last year to more than $1 million. The wood-fired pizza restaurant is located behind Bull City in a building that was Durham’s first fire station.
High employee turnover, a common hospitality-industry challenge, initially plagued Bull City. After a particularly rough shift in the restaurant’s second year, a discouraged Gross was having a beer and talking with Martha King, who spent two decades working in corporate human resources and has helped run the business since its launch.
“We were hiring badly. We were taking warm bodies, not screening people properly,” he says. “And I said to Martha, ‘We’ve got to change.’” King, whose official title is Queen of All That Matters, dove into the company’s hiring and employment data.
“We saw that, sure enough, there were spikes,” Gross says. “Fifteen days in, people were leaving, then we saw another spike at 10 weeks and then at three months.” That realization led to the creation of a new onboarding process. Prospective employees now start with a tryout. “In one shift you can tell a lot about a person,” he says. At set milestones, employees are rewarded with gift cards, gift bags and other incentives.
Gross and King began looking at other factors that might incentivize workers — the business refers to them as Heartbeats — to stick around: The company pays for work shoes and gym memberships and offers emergency loans and a simple IRA. Turnover rates have dropped from about 160% in 2013 to 38% this year.
When Gross learned about B Lab, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that recognizes businesses that meet certain standards of social and environmental performance, among other metrics, he decided to seek B Corporation certification. Interested companies take an online assessment that evaluates how a company interacts with its workers, customers, community and the environment. Bull City and Pompieri Pizza are the only two North Carolina restaurants that are certified B Corps.
“From Day 1, when [Gross] came and talked to us, it was very clear that [his concept] was about good food but also a place for the community,” says Downtown Durham’s Muir. Bull City contributes more than $30,000 annually through numerous fundraisers and donations of gift cards, beer and food. Recently, the company teamed with five local breweries to raise $50,000 for a Habitat for Humanity project called the House That Craft Beer built.
While his downtown businesses are thriving, Gross says he has signed a letter of intent to lease space for a new project outside the center city. “I don’t need to do more, but I want to do more. Because now I feel a sense of obligation to the people who work in this company, because I want them to feel the ability to grow and be able to do better,” he says. King, his chef and his head brewer have been with him since the business opened.
Long-term plans also include opening a community restaurant that would employ formerly homeless residents or those who have battled addiction. Instead of a menu with prices, patrons would determine how much they want to pay. An affiliated farm would provide jobs for people who are getting back on their feet but might not be ready for customer-facing roles.
For Gross, sticking to his core values has worked so far. When that phone call came in suggesting the restaurant might run out of meat, Gross never considered purchasing corn-fed beef from traditional suppliers. “I won’t enable a broken food system,” he says. “The animal suffers, and I just don’t want to be a part of that.”
As for the increased competition as Durham’s beer and restaurant scene grows, Gross is unfazed.
“I have always believed and will continue to believe that quality wins.”