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Not business as usual: Durham restaurants face setbacks, find new opportunities as pandemic continues

<p>Local Ethiopian restaurant Goorsha has adapted to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, from turning to pick-up and delivery orders to turning a group event space into a cafe.</p>

Local Ethiopian restaurant Goorsha has adapted to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, from turning to pick-up and delivery orders to turning a group event space into a cafe.

It has not been easy for many Durham bars and restaurants since the stay-at-home order issued March 25, 2020, and subsequent social distancing policies. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper extended the Phase 3 modified stay-at-home order Jan. 27,  and it will remain effective through at least Feb. 28. Some restrictions are relevant to restaurants and bars: They must close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., the sale of alcohol for on-site consumption is prohibited between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m, masks must be worn at all times, and the mass gathering limit remains at 10 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

Food establishments in downtown Durham have had a variety of experiences navigating the pandemic and these restrictions, and while some restaurants may be doing better financially than others, it has not been business as usual for anyone.

“We stopped Sit & Dine in the store and limited it to two customers in the store at a time,” wrote Nat Jirasawad, owner of Sugar Koi Ice Cream, in an email. “Our store hours had to change to be a shorter day, and it affects the revenue.”

Many small businesses, like Sugar Koi Ice Cream, are financially troubled during the prolonged restrictions. Jirasawad wrote that despite financial challenges, they haven’t received adequate support from the local government.

“The lack of foot traffic would kill small businesses like mine. And I don’t get any help from the local government at all,” Jirasawad wrote. “The business near me has closed doors for good and there is no sign of new businesses coming in, which is very scary.”

There is a long list of currently closed businesses in Durham, among them Allday Cafe, Trattoria Salve and The Atomic Fern. Some establishments have closed permanently, including Gonza Tacos Y Tequila and Lucky’s.

Fasil Tesfaye, another Durham business owner, is trying to make the best of the situation. As the owner of Goorsha, an Ethiopian restaurant on West Main Street, he has had to go through many roadblocks to keep his restaurant alive.

Most of the Goorsha service consists of pick-up and delivery at the moment, Tesfaye said, with 95% of customers placing online orders. Goorsha takes care of large group deliveries through Durham Delivers, which eliminates the hefty service fees of more popular delivery apps, he said.

Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery, also adjusted to the new conditions by overhauling the way that his business handles takeout orders. While they had not taken phone or online orders previously, they had to quickly adapt, as 80% of their customers are now curbside, Gross wrote in an email.

“This was a massive technological challenge, training challenge, and an experiment with types of packaging. We didn't want our fries and burger buns to get soggy,” Gross wrote.

Since most small Durham businesses are self-financed, there are not many funding resources available during the pandemic. 

“When it comes to loans, it’s just a relief. Most of us can’t qualify because we don’t have a good track record, since we’ve been paying our own debts,” Tesfaye said. 

Goorsha did not get a disaster loan, Tesfaye said, though they did get a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which is how the restaurant managed to survive. In addition, they received a Facebook Black-Owned Businesses Grant of $2500. 

However, similar to Jirasawad, Tesfaye is not satisfied with the support provided by the government. 

“Especially from the federal government, it was slow and confusing at the beginning,” he said. “It’s still cumbersome, especially for the small businesses, and especially for restaurants.”

Mr. Tesfaye could not qualify for any other support and noted that the current process for applying for aid from organizations is “cumbersome” and “overwhelming.”

“Before you get through the whole paperwork, there is something that makes you disqualify,” he said. He added that the documents do not make an effort to be clear about what they ask, so by the time he asks the necessary clarification questions, the money has run out.

Additionally, the sheer number of applicants in financial support programs make it difficult to get any sort of funding when an opportunity becomes available, he said.

“Yes, it helps some people, but unfortunately I’m not one of them, I never got a chance,” Tesfaye said.

Gross agreed with Jirasawad and Tesfaye’s sentiments. 

“I think the people of Durham and the Triangle are absolutely wonderful,” Gross wrote. “They have been understanding, flexible, and generous since the shutdown. I wish the local and state government had been more helpful and had better communication with small businesses.”

Changing is especially significant for Gross. “I think we have pivoted so many times that we have become dancers as we try to find a way to stay alive,” he wrote.

Goorsha has similarly innovated to create advantages out of what started as a financial issue, by transforming a group events space—previously unused during the pandemic—into a cafe. 

The cafe, GoJo is a hang-outs spot designed specifically for Duke students to go relax and study with Wi-Fi, and they serve paninis made from the same flavors as the traditional Ethiopian cuisine featured in the restaurant,.

“You don’t feel like you need to rush. That’s the atmosphere I was trying to create,” Tesfaye said. He is looking forward to growing this new enterprise after the COVID-19 restrictions expire, to create a space for hookah, live music and small bites. 

Jirasawad wrote that Sugar Koi Ice Cream has also created incentives for the Duke community to engage more with his business. 

“I want to let all the Duke students and employees know, if you come to the store and show us your student I.D. or Duke employee I.D., we would love to give you guys 10% off of your purchase,” Jirasawad wrote.

As the pandemic continues, Gross is trying to keep his morale high. He stressed that the Duke community is always welcome at Bull City Burger and Brewery.

“We are losing money every day, but the students have kept us from going out of business all together,” he wrote. “We really can tell when they are in session as our patio business picks up quite a bit and we sure need it.” 

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