When Jennings Brody opened Parker and Otis, a restaurant and gourmet grocery store, six years ago, there were about three locally owned restaurants nearby in downtown Durham.
Today, more than 20 restaurants and bakeries dot the downtown area — serving everything from Spanish tapas, wood-fired pizzas and nationally acclaimed pies to Brody’s own famous pimento cheese sandwiches.
N.C. ECONOMY SERIES
This is the fourth part of a biweekly series examining how North Carolina’s industries attempt to move forward.
Last installment: Health care
Next installment: IT
“I think it’s amazing to see the difference between when we opened and now,” Brody said. “Now it’s really locally owned — chain shops aren’t really in the mix.”
Across the state, restaurateurs in cities are embracing local cuisine and showcasing their talents.
And tourists have noticed, said Wit Tuttell, director of tourism marketing for the N.C. Department of Commerce.
In North Carolina, the tourism sector is bouncing back from the Great Recession, with the latest reports showing increased visitor spending in all 100 counties.
The direct gross domestic product of the tourism sector grew almost 8 percent — to more than $9 billion — in 2011, and the sector helped account for about 9 percent of the state’s jobs.
The increased interest in the state’s restaurants and breweries is part of a larger trend of culinary tourism, Tuttell said.
“We’ve been able to jump onto that trend and expose N.C. as a food destination,” he said.
Durham, which was recently named Southern Living’s “Tastiest Town in the South,” is increasingly recognized as a food destination after 25 years of culinary growth, said Shelly Green, president and CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“You focus on what you have and what you can promote,” Green said. “I think this award just gives us another feather in our cap for promoting coming to Durham for the food.”
The visitors bureau commissioned a 2011 outside study, which found that about 447,000 of Durham’s day trip visitors came specifically for the food.
While the city’s marketing reach is usually about a 300 mile radius, the bureau targets “foodies” from all over the country through advertising and social media, Green said.
She said Durham’s food scene embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity the city strives to showcase.
“It’s a very open, inclusive atmosphere, and that carries over into our brand,” she said.
Beer has also lured tourists from beyond the state’s borders, with cities such as Asheville receiving national recognition as East Coast beer havens.
Asheville, which earned the title BeerCity USA 2012 for the fourth consecutive year, will soon be home to New Belgium and Sierra Nevada breweries and at least five more craft breweries, said Dodie Stephens, spokeswoman for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“People come here for (the mountains and the Biltmore Estate), but they are surprised about the sophisticated culinary scenes,” she said. “If you look at Asheville from a culinary destination standpoint, it has grown tremendously.”
Oscar Wong, founder and owner of Highland Brewing Company, Asheville’s first craft brewery, said people from around the world have visited his brewery. He said he’s noticed a heightened interest in breweries in the past three years.
“We’ve had a huge influx of people coming in to experience the beer culture,” he said.
“Asheville’s always been a tourist destination from way back when. The advent of craft brewing is just the newest wrinkle,” he said.
Marketing the state
North Carolina food and beer haven’t always had the popularity they enjoy today.
The biggest draws of the state have historically been natural landmarks, ranging from the mountains to the ocean, Tuttell said.
“We found that the basic perception of North Carolina is that it’s a place of natural beauty,” Tuttell said. “What we’ve tried to do is make it a little more special.”
About two years ago, the Department of Commerce recast its marketing of the state to feature more cultural aspects — highlighting stories about the state’s history, local businesses and people.
These stories help set the state, which is now the sixth most-visited by overnight travelers, apart from the rest of the Southeast, Tuttell said.
The food and breweries help tell the stories of the state’s agricultural background and individual communities’ commitment to artisan efforts, he said.
This month, the Department of Commerce is working with the N.C. Brewers Guild to celebrate breweries across the state during the state’s first N.C. Beer Month.
“We really have to find a way to differentiate ourselves,” Tuttell said. “When visitors make those connections they have a tendency to stay longer, spend more money and come back more often.”
Contact the desk editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.