At the beginning of the year, Zach White’s cocktail club in Carrboro was in the midst of a remarkable period of growth. Then, the lockdowns began.
“For many months leading up to our shutdown, we were breaking sales records and we were getting high praise from everywhere,” White said. “Seven months later, it’s a totally different scene.”
White is the co-owner of Belltree, an old-fashioned cocktail club off East Main Street that specializes in serving both old-fashioned and innovative cocktails in a classic, speakeasy-like atmosphere. When lockdown measures began across the state in mid-March, Belltree was one of countless businesses in the downtown area forced to shutter as a result.
Many businesses have since been able to return to a sense of normalcy in recent months through services like online delivery and curbside pickup. However, small local bars have witnessed additional hardships that have affected the livelihood of their businesses, their employees and the atmospheres they try to create.
White said for Belltree, the closing of its on-site dining options in the spring didn’t just mean a shift in services, but a total closing of the club.
“We’re a private club, and all of our sales come through booze,” White said. “A lot of bars tried to get a little hot dog cooker or sell potato chips to say, ‘Oh, we do sell food,’ but it doesn’t work that way.”
Belltree closed its doors on March 15 and witnessed over seven months of complete closure before partially reopening again in early October when the state allowed for bars to open with socially distanced outdoor seating options. The club opened a new patio area on Oct. 17, just 10 days after its four-year anniversary.
White said while he’s grateful for the opportunity to reopen, the change comes at an unfortunate time as cooler temperatures start coming into the area.
“With the weather, it’s going into the 30s, and you’re a trooper if you want to sit outside and drink a cocktail or a cold beer like that,” White said. “We will be all right, but as far as these first two weeks, our numbers are slashed in half, at least.”
Belltree’s difficulties are not an isolated experience.
Mandey Brown is the founder and owner of Imbibe Cajun Kitchen and Zog’s Pool Hall, a joint business situated on the first and second floor of a historic house just off Franklin Street.
Brown said while Imbibe, her New Orleans-style restaurant and market, has been able to remain open through curbside and delivery options, Zog’s, the upstairs dive bar, has been temporarily closed since March.
“As soon as they said it’s not safe to be open, we shut down within 24 hours,” Brown said. “As a business, obviously it’s devastating.”
Brown said even with Imbibe fairing relatively well since the pandemic began, the loss of regular income caused by the closure of Zog’s has been a difficult adjustment for Imbibe’s employees.
John Martin, a bartender at Imbibe and Zog’s, said while he and his co-workers have adapted well to the changing business models, the loss of additional income he previously received from bartending was hard to get used to.
For both Martin and Brown, the loss of the social environment of Imbibe and Zog's has been a similarly difficult transition.
“When you work in this industry, your entire job is based on interacting with people, and small talk and just following people’s lives,” Brown said. “I’m in the kitchen now for 11 hours a day, and that makes me a little sad.”
Martin said while he fully supports the lockdown efforts, he regrets the loss of Imbibe as an LGBTQ-friendly space on Franklin that he feels other establishments don’t traditionally offer.
“Zog’s and Imbibe are both places where people who maybe don’t feel like they fit in on the rest of Franklin Street can go,” Martin said. “Not having that kind of physical place is a little jarring for everyone, I think.”
Brown and White both said dependable regulars and new, unexpected patrons have provided the encouragement needed to keep their businesses and outlooks afloat.
White described an encounter that occurred just the other week when a patron he initially feared was upset about the lack of indoor seating left a generous tip as they made their way outside.
“As they were walking out, they said, ‘By the way, this is for the COVID relief fund,’ and when I turned around, they had slipped a $100 bill underneath the shaker,” White said.
Brown said for all the difficulties, she still considers herself to be lucky.
She said while the situation may not be sustainable in the long term, she believes in the ability of her team and local community to pull together.
“As long as the lights come on, and people keep ordering, we’ll keep selling,” Brown said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.