Seven years ago, Seth Gross opened his first restaurant in Durham using a lesson he’d learned in college—you can live solely off pizza, burgers and beer.
It’s a truism known by many Duke undergraduates today who frequent Gross’s Bull City Burger and Brewery and Pompieri Pizza on the regular. Upon arriving in Durham, these are among the initial staples first-year students discover, before branching out into the numerous other offerings in the foodie town.
Many of these establishments are owned by just a handful of successful business owners who control a large portion of the market. Does this make it hard for newcomers to open a restaurant or distract from Durham’s other offerings? Not according to the city’s restaurateurs who describe the foodie community as welcoming and supportive. Plus, they are still figuring out the restaurant world as they go and are subject to the same forces that have shaped Durham in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Gross, who’s lived in Durham for 22 years now, noted that when he first opened his businesses, the Durham food scene was drastically different.
“It was really great because [there were] just a handful of restaurants, you only came downtown for a specific restaurant and meal,” he said. “It wasn’t thriving to where it is today.”
There were about ten restaurants downtown at the time, whereas now he estimates that more than 50 fill the eclectic area.
Charlie Deal remembers when downtown Durham was devoid of popular eateries. The current owner of Dos Perros and Juju Asian Tapas and Bar, he was exposed to the restaurant business at a young age because his parents loved food.
He later realized he enjoyed cooking even more than restaurants and opened a clandestine eatery out of his apartment in California. After moving to Durham with his wife, he decided to open a more legal establishment and started Dos Perros in 2009.
“Downtown, there was nothing going on at all,” he said. “The vast majority of places currently were not there.”
He said Dos Perros wasn’t the first downtown eatery but there were only two or three before him. He was attracted to the area because the Durham Performing Arts Center had recently opened, and there weren’t enough restaurants to support the crowds coming downtown for a bite before seeing a show.
Wendy Woods—owner of Piper's in the Park, Grub, NOSH and Jo Rae Cafe—said that the Durham restaurant scene evolved as the popularity of Research Triangle Park grew.
She got her start in the restaurant world working as a hostess and then began moving up the ranks. After a stint in Atlanta working for a corporation that opened restaurants, she moved back to Durham—her hometown—and started Piper’s in the Park in 1999.
“The first restaurant job I had, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
She noted that the Durham restaurant boom has paved the way for more independent eateries like her businesses and less of the chains that often take over. In addition, Duke’s popularity has drawn people from across the United States, many of whom appreciate good, authentic food.
“With people from other parts of the country moving to Durham, it’s a whole different avenue,” she said. “It’s way different than when we first started.”
The Durham restaurant world
Since the Durham food scene exploded, a handful of famous business owners have shaped the restaurant atmosphere. Along with Gross, Deal and Woods, Matt Kelly runs popular spots Saint James Seafood, Vin Rouge, Mateo Bar de Tapas, Mothers and Sons Trattoria and Lucky’s Delicatessen. Gray Brooks owns Pizzeria Toro, Jack Tar and the Colonel's Daughter and Littler.
Gross said it’s only natural for restaurant owners to want to expand their empires.
“Anybody who is into food has all kinds of food ideas in their head,” he said. “If you can get one idea to work, it gives you confidence.”
However, he said that it is incredibly difficult to manage multiple establishments and admires anyone who does. For his part, he wants to open at least five more eateries but declined to reveal any of his ideas.
Deal explained that having one popular business allows you to get your foot in the door and makes it easier for future projects to be successful. Sometimes, building owners who have an open space will approach prominent restaurateurs and ask if they want to open an eatery there.
“They are inclined to go to someone who is already known in the community,” he said.
For Woods, expansion is not always something planned—it’s more about the opportunities that arise if the public likes what you’re doing.
“I don't think I was trying to have more than one, but the right opportunities presented themselves and then you have to make a decision,” she said.
Still, all three restaurateurs described the Durham food scene as a welcoming environment, especially for newcomers hoping to try out their ideas.
“We’re willing to give advice,” Woods said. “I think the restaurant community is very intertwined, I feel very supported.”
There’s even a Facebook page for downtown restaurant owners, Gross noted. He said there’s great friendship among the independent owners because of the nature of the industry—it’s a small world. They often see each other at food shows and wine shows, which foster relationships.
“I don't feel like anybody is threatening our business in any way,” he said. “We do our thing, and we do it well.”
Deal noted that when a new place opens up, all the restaurant owners are racing to try it out. Even though they realize their own establishment will have a dip in sales, they are still welcoming to new entrants.
However, the hype surrounding Durham’s food scene means that you can’t open a restaurant quietly, which has its own drawbacks. Eateries don't always have time to work through all their initial growing pains before being flooded with customers.
“You’re rarely firing on all cylinders,” he said. “Some people realize it, others expect you to be perfect right from the get go.”
Deal noted that with the growth of the Durham restaurant scene in the past ten years, new businesses have to work harder to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. There are so many different kinds of cuisine that entrants have to find some way to make their business unique. In the future, he said he thinks that more regional specialities will open up.
“You need to differentiate yourself by not just being Italian but being North Italian, he said. “I expect that trend to happen now that somebody has done the general version, there will be specialization.”
For Gross, gentrification and rising rents represent the future of downtown Durham. He worries that independent establishments will move out, and bigger companies will take over.
In addition, the high rents have led to a lack of workers, which has impacted many restaurants.
“There isn't a solid labor pool of experienced people—that’s true for any city going through gentrification,” he said. “The best [restaurants] will survive, that’s just how the business works.”
Woods said she doesn’t really know where Durham’s food scene will go next, and she’s okay with that. The public will tell the owners what they want to see, she explained.
“I think Durham is a great city, I grew up here and I’ve seen it go through different stages. But we love our restaurants, I love my customers and I’m just going to keep going down that road,” she said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.