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New initiative Garden Spot supports small food businesses

Owner of King's Pepper, Gail Jennings, served her award-winning African tacos at the Garden Spot behind Lantern Restaurant on Franklin Street on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. Jennings' products are a blend of street food and West African influence.

A new haven for lovers of food and art alike has come to Franklin Street. 

Tucked behind Lantern Restaurant, Garden Spot is a local initiative working to connect emerging small food businesses with the community.

Lantern’s new project hosted its first series of pop-up events in late July. Vendors apply to be part of a four- to six-week-long residency, during which they serve their food each weekend.

The vendors participating in the first series of pop-up events offered cuisine from a variety of cultures: African tacos, ice cream inspired by South Indian and Arabic flavors, classic soul food and Mexican-inspired dishes. 

“We're particularly wanting to support minority-owned and queer-owned businesses, knowing that, on Franklin Street and more broadly, that people in those communities have had difficulty accessing some of the capital and assets required to start up enterprises, even though a lot of those small food enterprises are owned by people of color and the queer community,” Abby Parcell, Garden Spot’s program coordinator, said.

Andrea Reusing, owner and chef at Lantern, said the idea started during the pandemic and that the Town of Chapel Hill’s ReVive Recovery Grant helped with initial funds for the project.

Reusing saw Garden Spot as a valuable place to help support new businesses that lack traditional access to capital.

“Franklin Street tends to be talked about as if it means the same thing to everybody, no matter who you are — whether you're an alumni or your family has lived here for five generations or you're an undergrad,” Reusing said. “But I think what a lot of people don't understand about Franklin Street is not everybody in our community truly feels welcome on Franklin Street.”

Garden Spot offers an unusual opportunity for vendors to participate with no fee, removing the financial boundaries of selling at a market, Parcell said. 

Furthermore, Parcell said the initiative is working with the Small Business Center at Durham Technical Community College to create a network for vendors to share resources.

Another one of Garden Spot’s partners is the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, which offers a music program encouraging small businesses to hire live performers to be part of the evening, Parcell said.

“We think it adds another space for the community to gather, to celebrate local vendors and help small, local businesses,” Stephanie Cobert, director of marketing at the CHDP, said.

While food is the focus of Garden Spot, Lantern and its partners also offer poetry readings and live music from local artists. 

UNC junior Shreya Gundam, an interim sales associate for vendor Elaka Treats, said the project enforces community, and she can tell it means a lot to the vendors because Garden Spot is a good opportunity for getting business traction. 

Gail Jennings, the owner and founder of King’s Pepper, has been selling her African taco kits locally but has never prepared and sold her food in North Carolina — until now. She said Garden Spot gave her the opportunity to put a personal spin on her own product.

“One of the things I love about doing Garden Spot is seeing the smiles on the faces of the customers when they take that first bite of one of my King’s Pepper African tacos,” Jennings said.

Jennings said Garden Spot gave her two streams of revenue through her tacos and at-home spice kits.

The short residencies mean there will be a consistent revolving door of vendors who offer new tastes and experiences. Cobert urged the public to visit often because each time will be different.

“To have this small space with rotating vendors, we think it’ll be very popular, and even if people haven’t necessarily heard about it, it’s something they can happen upon and take part in,” Cobert said.

Reusing said the next pop-up series will feature a new roster of vendors during the last three weekends of October in conjunction with Festifall, a community arts festival. 

“I think this is a chance for us to have a place that feels like a bit of an oasis where lots of different communities and neighbors in Chapel Hill can be together and be welcome and make new connections, too,” Parcell said.

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