For some Franklin Street restaurants, the lack of students on campus over the summer and locals staying home due to COVID-19 was too much.
In March, Gov. Roy Cooper closed all North Carolina restaurants for dine-in services. Under current COVID-19 restrictions, restaurants are now able to open at 50 percent capacity.
But Lula’s, Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza and Ms Mong are some of the restaurants that have permanently closed their doors because of the coronavirus.
Lotsa, located on the corner of West Franklin and North Columbia streets, opened in 2017, replacing the former Jasmin Mediterranean Bistro. The restaurant was a casual, fast-paced pizza joint that allowed patrons to easily customize personal pizzas with fresh ingredients.
The company also has locations in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana, according to its website, all of which are open.
Ms Mong, another Chapel Hill favorite, officially closed last week. The restaurant made the announcement in a Facebook post on Aug. 14.
"It is with great regret that we announce Ms Mong is now officially closed permanently, due to COVID-19," the post said. "Thank you to the UNC community for the amazing support and patronage over the years!"
The post has more than 300 reactions and 100 comments, many thanking the restaurant, and some begging for the news to be false.
Ms Mong, which opened in 2015, was a casual Asian restaurant best known for its build-your-own stir-fry. Like Lotsa, its fast-paced nature and reputation for takeout made it especially reliant on students.
Matt Gladdek, the executive director of Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said Lotsa and Ms Mong depended heavily on the University to stay afloat.
“I’m sure that both Ms Mong and Lotsa did their best to get through,” said Gladdek. “UNC students coming back wasn’t normal, and now students are leaving — which is the right public health decision, but it is very difficult for our local businesses.”
Lula’s, a restaurant owned by Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, announced on Facebook July 30 that it was permanently closing. The restaurant had replaced Spanky’s Bar and Grill, also owned by Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, in 2018.
Greg Overbeck, one of the owners of Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, said business had been slowing down before COVID-19, so the decision to close down was only sped up by the pandemic.
“Business had continued to fall off at Spanky’s,” said Overbeck. “So we opened Lula’s, but it never reached the threshold it needed to reach to make it in that location.”
Overbeck said Lula's tried to do takeout at the beginning of the pandemic, but it wasn’t very successful. He cited the lack of parking in the location and tremendous competition from surrounding restaurants.
Chapel Hill Restaurant Group is planning to open a new, Asian street-style restaurant, LuLuBangBang, at the end of the year in Research Triangle Park, Overbeck said. He said the location is tricky because restaurants in the Triangle rely heavily on companies to report to an in-person office. But with other businesses closing down, he said he remains hopeful for the future.
“There will be less competition because, unfortunately, a lot of restaurants will have to close,” Overbeck said. “What we’re hoping to do is survive, and then thrive on the other side of this.”
Other Chapel Hill restaurants, like Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Perennial Café and Lantern, remain temporarily closed.
It is unclear if they’ll reopen, as government financial aid to keep them afloat is running out, Gladdek said.
“Now that the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money has run out, now that initial federal stimulus is gone, local and state resources have much less resources,” Gladdek said. “I expect, across the U.S., that we’ve had many businesses that have held on for six months, and that we are going to see an increase in the amount of closures.”
Gladdek said students returning home following UNC's transition to remote learning for undergraduates will be yet another roadblock for local business.
“It’s really important to understand just how difficult it is to do business in general, especially in a place that is reliant on a customer base that isn’t here,” Gladdek said.
He said Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership is making efforts to help local business keep their doors open as the pandemic continues.
According to Gladdek, the partnership is working with the N.C. Department of Transportation to expand sidewalk space so that more businesses can have outdoor seating. The partnership purchased and printed vinyl sidewalk stickers to properly distance patrons in line, advocated for free parking in the summer and reserved curbside pickup parking spots, he said.
Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership is also trying to draw residents to walk and experience Franklin Street safely. Local artists are set to paint new murals to attract people, and Gladdek said the partnership is navigating ways to host socially distanced events.
“We’re really trying to throw everything against the wall at this point,” Gladdek said. “We’re just trying to encourage people to come downtown safely, wear a mask and support our businesses during this really difficult time.”
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