After a slower-than-usual summer season in Chapel Hill, some restaurants were ready for the usual dine-in traffic from students returning to campus. But now, businesses are bracing for impact as the University has transitioned online and on-campus students are leaving their dorms.
Que Chula, a family-owned Mexican restaurant on Franklin Street, opened on May 7, while restaurants were closed for dine-in services under an executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper. Owner José Ramirez said it was a hard decision to open the restaurant only for takeout, because it costs more than dining in.
“We had to open because we were going to start paying rent,” Ramirez said. “Whatever we could make, it was helpful for the rent, but when you do takeout, you have to spend more money on to-go containers and utensils.”
Ramirez said the restaurant's team was patient when trying to survive the months before students came back to campus. He said during move-in week, the restaurant had its busiest week yet.
“We hired more employees, like cooks and waitstaff,” Ramirez said. “It was a very tiring week for everyone, but servers were very happy because they were making good money.”
Ramirez said when the news about clusters of COVID-19 cases on campus spread, business slowed down again as fewer residents went to Franklin Street.
“It is worse now than when we started,” Ramirez said. “Local families who usually walk on Franklin Street and stop to eat are not doing that anymore because they are afraid of students.”
Ramirez is not the only restaurant owner who has noticed this effect. Bret Oliverio, owner of Sup Dogs, said he thinks business has been slower since clusters at UNC made national news.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s that students are leaving, I think it’s more of a function of people feeling unsafe,” Oliverio said. “For us, being Sup Dogs, we are sort of hyper-focused on college students and are known as a popular place for students. When the breakouts happen, families are less likely to want to eat here and be around UNC students."
Oliverio said he thinks business will go up and down as the pandemic continues.
“As numbers go down and there are less students in town, I think the locals will eventually come back,” Oliverio said. “If people don’t feel safe, it’s just impossible for any restaurant or retail to make any money on Franklin Street."
Bernard Bell, a professor and the executive director of the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship at UNC, said Franklin Street usually operates successfully on the density of student traffic.
“There could be devastating effects on restaurants without that student density,” Bell said.
Bell said an obstacle for reopening for dine-in during COVID-19 is the additional costs, like signage, single-use menus, outdoor seating and additional cleaning measures.
“I think restaurants on Franklin Street will need to brace for a very challenging future short term until the virus is under wraps,” Bell said. “Fixed costs like rent, insurance and employee insurance don’t go down just because people don’t come into the door.”
For employees of some restaurants, students leaving is a double-edged sword.
Melissa DePierro, a senior at UNC and a manager at Carolina Coffee Shop, said while servers make more money while students are on campus, many have felt unsafe serving students. She said overhearing them talk about going to parties made her very nervous.
“I don’t think money could outweigh the health and safety of workers,” DePierro said.
Sarah Moore, another manager at Carolina Coffee Shop, said this goes to show that the University’s decision-making doesn’t only affect the student body.
“The entire town is at stake too,” Moore said. “There’s the back of house staff that rely on this job as their income, so if we shut down, they will need money to survive and support their families.”
Bell said a challenge restaurants face is that they are already operating on thin margins.
"To lose their entire dine-in business due to social distancing within restaurants is going to be very challenging, because they still have to make rent,” he said.
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