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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Don't let the restaurants that define our college experience fade away

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Students watch the UNC vs Duke basketball game a Linda's Bar and Grill on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

Walking through Chapel Hill with my dad is like visiting a graveyard of lost friends.

As an alumnus of the school, he knows the ins and outs of Franklin Street, the best restaurants, bars and hidden gems. But he also remembers the places that were beloved during his time here that are no longer around. Echoes of the memories made in some of his favorite places in college that are now closed (Bub O'Malley's, for example, which is now The Gathering Place) reverberate through my ears each time we explore Franklin, not only from him but from each of his college friends as well.

Today’s small businesses of Franklin Street seem to be fading away as fast as they spring up, leaving behind store after store of empty space. Since the beginning of this semester, three restaurants on Franklin have closed their doors: Linda’s Bar and Grill; Dame’s Chicken and Waffles; and Capriotti’s.

Last year Chapel Hill lost many businesses, including Top of The Hill's Distillery and Basecamp. Though not all of these are small businesses, they still join a long list of other Chapel Hill stores that have ceased operations recently, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-related issues are a common theme when it comes to recent Franklin Street closures, despite us being four years removed from the start of the pandemic. In the case of Linda’s, it was lingering effects from COVID-19 in combination with debt accumulation that led to its closure. Ye Olde Waffle Shop, which opened in 1972, was also unable to stay open during the pandemic. The small, tight dining of the charming restaurant made it a Franklin Street staple, but also meant that the social-distancing restrictions of COVID-19 forced it to close.

Going further back, there's the Rathskellar, familiarly known as “The Rat,” a Chapel Hill institution that opened in 1948. Despite The Daily Tar Heel publishing a 1992 article with the title “The Rat has always been there… and it always will be," it closed in 2007.

Or there’s Pepper’s Pizza, a popular spot that closed in 2013 after serving Franklin Street for over 25 successful years.

According to CNBC, 60 percent of restaurants fail within a year of opening and nearly 80 percent will fail in five years. Staying open and amassing a loyal customer base for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years is a rarity and an accomplishment.

At that point, it is not a problem of popularity that causes a restaurant to close, but a combination of external factors like recessions, pandemics or rising inflation and rent forcing them to close their doors.

Chapel Hill should prioritize restaurants that have survived as long as Linda’s, Ye Olde Waffle Shop, The Rat or Pepper’s Pizza did and provide them with the support needed to stay open. A program of grants could accomplish this, allocating funds toward restaurants that have been around for a certain amount of time, possibly 25 years or more.

In 2021, the Chapel Hill Town Council created a Downtown Small Business Relocation Grant Program, intended to support businesses being displaced by new development. Made possible through the American Rescue Plan Act, Chapel Hill businesses could apply for a grant to be used for space improvements, relocation costs, lease payments or down payment deposits.

A grant program similar to this, enacted through the town council and specifically geared at long-standing businesses, could assist our favorite restaurants through externality-induced issues and allow them to remain Chapel Hill staples.

Eateries of Franklin Street have been an important part of the UNC experience for many and are an essential part of Chapel Hill's history and culture. Allowing places that define generations of students to close means so much more than the death of the businesses themselves.

It means that the next class of students will never be able to experience these places, never be able to make their own memories there and never understand those special places that defined the college years of previous students.

One day in the future, when I bring my children back to this school, I do not want to walk Franklin Street and say “there's where Carolina Coffee Shop used to be, my friends and I loved that place” or “Here's where Sup Dogs was, I wish I’d gone more times before they closed.” I would rather take them inside, sit them down and let them taste what made my college experience so special.

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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