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'No end in sight': Franklin Street rides out a post-pandemic reality

A sign on East Franklin Street provides information about safety precautions against COVID-19 on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

When Robert Poitras first closed Carolina Brewery’s doors at 460 W. Franklin St. to in-person diners in March, he expected it to last a couple of weeks.

“Then the goal post kept moving,” Poitras said. “Now, there’s no end in sight.”

Like many businesses on Franklin Street, Carolina Brewery is still reeling from the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. After two months of takeout-only service, the restaurant opened to in-person diners again in late May. But business isn't the same, Poitras said, and it doesn’t generate the same sales.

“You just don’t know what every day is going to bring, from a sales standpoint,” he said. 

With steep rents, high property taxes and stiff competition among shops and restaurants, running a successful business on Franklin Street was difficult enough before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, local owners are working to survive an economic shock unlike anything they’ve seen. 

Even for well-established businesses, the effects were cataclysmic, said Jamil Kadoura, the owner of Mediterranean Deli, Bakery and Catering, located at 410 W. Franklin St.

“I’m friends with many restaurants, and everybody can tell you the same — this year has just gotten away from us.” Kadoura said. “You just have to accept it and try to survive until this whole thing can go by.”

Kadoura’s catering operation, which typically accounts for about half of his total business, was decimated by the pandemic. The nine white vans he once used to cart food around the Triangle now sit idle in the parking lot.

He never fully closed his doors, choosing to take out federal and private loans rather than conserve his losses and lay off the 96 employees he had on staff before the outbreak. 

But even for a business that’s been around for decades, times are tough. 

“For the first time in 31 years, I see loss on my profit and loss statement,” Kadoura said. 

Like many shops and eateries on Franklin Street, Kadoura gets a lot of his business from the University, either directly through catering orders or indirectly through the students, visitors and sports fans that UNC brings to Chapel Hill. 

“We’re hoping with the school open, that the town will have a little more foot traffic in it,” he said. “We hope that we’ll go back to at least break even.”

Unlike Med Deli, Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews was only open for a few months before COVID-19 forced the business to close its physical storefront at 109 E. Franklin St.  

Co-owner Jaime Sanchez worked quickly to prop up Epilogue’s online store and generate new products like pastry and “surprise” boxes full of books and other gifts. 

“People already knew us and knew what our selection was about … so we quickly got traction there,” Sanchez said. 

Sanchez said Epilogue has been able to ride out the effects of the pandemic thanks to support from Chapel Hill community members.

“It’s a combination of community support for wanting a bookstore on Franklin Street, it's amazing landlords and business partners that are invested in us in one way or another and completely willing to help — coming down to working with great individuals that are willing to work with you,” Sanchez said.

Not all businesses were so lucky. LOTSA Stone Fired Pizza, formerly located at the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets, announced it would be closing its Chapel Hill location in April, citing insufficient revenue. Peño Mediterranean Grill, which opened last July, has boarded up its windows and doors. Other restaurants, including Waffle House, Ms. Mong’s and Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, have yet to reopen.

Marilyn Payne, the marketing and communications manager at the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership said Lula's, also located at the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets, will not reopen. Top of the Hill — the restaurant — will reopen Thursday for takeout and delivery and is expected to open to in-person diners Aug. 5.

University closures — including the cancellations of sports seasons, summer programs and graduation weekend — have had a significant impact on downtown Chapel Hill, Payne said.

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“The importance (of the University) cannot be overstated,” she said. 

In early August, the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership will be implementing a plan to accommodate social distancing on Franklin Street. The plan will close one lane of traffic on either side of the street for pedestrians and transform sidewalks into increased outdoor dining and sales space. 

The lane closure, which won't cause the street to lose parking spaces, is expected to begin the week of July 27.

Still, crowds of new customers who don’t follow safety guidelines would cause more problems than it would solve, Payne said. 

“We need people desperately to be safe,” she said. “The businesses need you to wear a mask. The businesses need you to be mindful of how many people you're interacting with, and at what close proximity. And the businesses need your business. But your business, if it's bringing carelessness into the downtown, is as much a part of the problem as the solution.”

Even with campus reopening, all the business owners who spoke to The Daily Tar Heel said they expect this new way of doing things to last for several months, with the effects lingering long after.

Payne said a complete economic recovery could take a year or longer.

“I think the unfortunate truth about our downtown is that full recovery is not the goal,” Payne said. “Full recovery and then some is the goal.”

Even if Chapel Hill returns to normal, Kadoura said, it’s likely some things at Med Deli will change for good. 

“I believe my sanitizer bottle is going to stay on my tables even after they find a vaccine … salt, pepper and sanitizer,” he said. “It’s going to stay forever.”

@DTHCityState |