After staffing and supply chain issues that persisted once the pandemic began in spring 2020, businesses in downtown Chapel Hill are bouncing back.
Jeff Hortman, co-owner of Carolina Coffee Shop on Franklin Street, said in an email that his experienced staff helped the company adapt to changing regulations and safety standards. With the slow, cautioned reopening of restaurants in late February, Hortman said his business saw a surprising turnaround.
“We opened in a limited capacity according to local guidelines and focused on safety of employees and patrons,” Hortman said. “We were a bit surprised to find a decent amount of business during this time, but it was mostly from local residents rather than students.”
Now, with students and campus tours back, Hortman said the Carolina Coffee Shop has seen a return to pre-pandemic visitor levels.
In June 2020, Chapel Hill began encouraging sidewalk dining as a means to recover business strength downtown. Bret Oliverio, the owner of Sup Dogs, said creating outdoor seating as early as possible was key to his company’s success early in 2021.
“At that time, I think the community and the students that were in town were way more comfortable dining outdoors, so we added as much outdoor seating as possible,” Oliverio said. “But January 2021 was definitely a rough month.”
Four Corners owner Kristian Bawcom said the Town’s emphasis on outdoor seating has helped keep his company afloat this year.
“It was a game changer for us because people who weren’t comfortable going inside had a place to sit outside and watch a football game or listen to music on a nice day or in the evening grab dinner," Bawcom said. "The Town of Chapel Hill really stepped up in helping assist us. Otherwise, I don’t know if we would’ve made it.”
Bawcom also said he experienced a strange success this spring, when students who stayed in Chapel Hill felt they could return to restaurants and did not have the option of on-campus dining halls.
“They were definitely going out more to eat versus when you have all the cafeterias and are on a meal plan,” Bawcom said.
Since the spring, Four Corners has seen a slow-down in dine-in customers, but with big events like football games returning to Chapel Hill, Bawcom said they have made up for lost profit.
Additionally, Oliverio, Bawcom and Hortman all said they’ve experienced staffing issues in the past year, as fewer people are working across the country. Bawcom said he’s never seen anything like the current labor shortage.
“Staffing correctly has almost been a nightmare,” Bawcom said. “Typically we’ll put a ‘now hiring’ sign in the window in the beginning of August, and ideally by Sept. 1, it comes out of the window and we’re not hiring again until the following summer. I still have a ‘now hiring’ sign in my window.”
The Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro announced earlier this month it will make over $20,000 available in grant opportunities to help assist businesses as part of the Carrboro and Chapel Hill business revitalization programs, which Oliverio said Sup Dogs has already benefited from.
The chamber also held Small Business Saturday on Nov. 27 and will hold small-business-centric events for the next several weeks.
“Every time we make a purchase at a local business, we support local jobs and help preserve the local character of our community,” Katie Loovis, vice president of external affairs for the chamber, said in a press release. “When we spend it here, we keep it here, so let’s keep it local with our in-store and online holiday purchases.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.