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Chapel Hill restaurants foster relationships with UNC athletes

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UNC women’s lacrosse players pose with Brandwein’s Bagels workers during the “Team Brandwein 2023/2024 Launch Day” outside of the storefront. Photo Courtesy of Brandwein's Bagels.

In The Purple Bowl’s office space, a KIND Oats & Honey Granola bag sits with a taped name tag written in Sharpie

The granola belongs to former UNC men’s basketball forward Puff Johnson

After Paula Gilland, CEO of The Purple Bowl, found that Johnson only eats a certain type of granola, she bought the KIND brand for the sixth man.

Following Johnson’s transfer to Penn State, the labeled granola now rests on the top white shelf in the office space waiting for when he might visit Chapel Hill.

“We can’t throw it away because it’s just like, 'we love you,'” Gilland said. “'We miss you.'”

Behind name, image and likeness deals that have encouraged high-profile athletes to consider business sponsorships, smaller restaurants in Chapel Hill have taken a different approach. Rather than choosing one team or a singular athlete to work with, restaurants like The Purple Bowl, Brandwein’s Bagels and Lucha Tigre aim to build personal relationships with various athletes outside of strict NIL deals. Smaller businesses in Chapel Hill want to showcase their appreciation for players who are a “fabric of the UNC community,” Gilland said. 

During the first two weeks of the school year, Alex Brandwein — the owner and founder of Brandwein’s Bagels and UNC alumnus — holds an annual Team Brandwein launch day event. To become a part of Team Brandwein, all UNC Division I athletes have to do is submit a simple application. Questions range from favorite memories at Brandwein’s to favorite bagel flavor and coffee order.

Then, for the entire day, members of Team Brandwein can collect their swag, indulge in bagel sandwiches and sign their names on the “Team Brandwein: We Support UNC Student Athletes” poster.

“It’s a day to sort of honor them and make sure they know how special they are and how much we appreciate them,” Brandwein said

Without holding players to strict expectations, over 200 athletes from various varsity teams are sponsored by Brandwein’s. 

While Brandwein wants to create these opportunities for athletes, he is also using the food and his business to build relationships with players across the community. He wants to be there for them through every single victory and hardship. 

“It's been really fun in like the high moments when teams have won national championships to the low moments when maybe things didn't go our way,” Brandwein said. “But they can come to us the next morning, and we're there for them. We got them.”

Some restaurants refuse to participate in sponsorships altogether.

Khoa Dinh, the owner of Lucha Tigre, does not offer any NIL deals. As a lifelong Tar Heel fan, he enjoys partnering with UNC nutritionists to fuel players before and after games.

“It’s almost like a dream come true that I am able to provide these athletes meals,” Dinh said. 

This is also the case for Gilland at The Purple Bowl. Though she receives around 10 emails a week from different athletes asking for an NIL deal, she lets them down gently.

Gilland struggles with the idea of sponsoring one athlete or team in particular. She “could never choose just one.” Instead, Gilland wants to create a “third space” for players away from the day-to-day stress of being a Division I athlete at UNC.

“[Athletes] bring some great gifts, but they’re craving normalcy,” Gilland said. “And they’re craving folks that ask them about their regular life.”

So, when players enter The Purple Bowl, they aren’t signing up for brand deals or photos with fans. Instead, they enter a place where they can simply relax in a space curated for them.

Not only was the menu created to serve athletes on strict diets, Gilland also created additional rules to make her restaurant comfortable for those looking for a break. Customers cannot take photos with the athletes. Gilland’s employees cannot serve them as fans. If these rules are broken, the CEO will step in.

Gilland simply wants them to engage in conversations with the people around them and unwind. She wants them to enjoy themselves and be a 19-21 year old.

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By creating a space for athletes, Gilland has made memories that will last a lifetime in the quieter moments. She doesn’t remember Final Fours or championship titles. Instead, she remembers making their meals, the times players have helped her during the lunch rush by cutting strawberries and the occasions she tested their athletic skills during pickleball matches. She loves meeting their grandparents, parents or significant others.

“I’m looking forward to when I meet their wives or their babies,” Gilland said. “That would be super fun. I better get some Purple Bowl onesies ready.”

In a time where athletes’ worlds are dominated by capitalizing on NIL, places like Brandwein’s Bagels, Lucha Tigre and The Purple Bowl work to be the exception. Building personal relationships should be the priority, according to Gilland.

“It’s more important than ever to think about as a community how we can help our athletes navigate this weird landscape.”

@_emmahmoon

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com