Durham’s once-flourishing restaurant industry has seen a temporary dip as many establishments struggle to recover from the COVID pandemic.
The main issue seems to be understaffing: restaurants and bars in North Carolina are permitted to operate at full-capacity without social distancing measures, but many establishments have yet to fill all of the positions that were lost during the pandemic.
There were 522,000 people working hospitality jobs in North Carolina in February 2020, and in just two months that number fell to 287,000 due to the pandemic. It has crept back up to 441,000 as of April 2021, but many positions remain unfilled.
Located on 9th Street near East Campus, Triangle Coffee House is a favorite among Duke students. However, the café continues to battle pandemic-induced understaffing.
“Pre-COVID Triangle Coffee House had five employees and we’re currently down to two employees,” a Triangle Coffee House representative wrote.“Typically we receive numerous resumes each month and since COVID we can go some months without receiving a job inquiry. We employ many Duke students and are hopeful they’ll be back working with us again when the fall semester starts.”
Other restaurants, such as popular wing spot Heavenly Buffaloes, have found ways to avoid the issue of understaffing. Co-owner Mark Dundas explained that Heavenly Buffaloes was “designed for carry-out,” which likely contributed to its ability to remain open during the majority of the pandemic.
“My business partner [Dain Phelan] and I made a conscious decision to keep people,” Dundas said with regard to understaffing. “What we said to each other was that if we break even over the period of this pandemic, and all of our staff are fully employed, then we’re doing a good thing.”
Dundas explained that despite there not being layoffs, the business did experience some natural turnover due to the pandemic.
“It was extremely difficult to hire people for a number of reasons. Whether it was the elevated unemployment people were receiving during the pandemic, stimulus checks, whatever it was,” Dundas said. “We were able to find staff—it just took us a little bit longer than normal.”
Dundas expressed appreciation for other members of the Durham community for supporting his restaurant—the lack of Duke students led to a “dip in activity,” as they are one of Heavenly Buffaloes’ biggest revenue sources.
“In the absence of students, they stepped up,” Dundas said. “The general public stepped up because of the pandemic, because of wanting to help small local businesses.”
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Madeleine Berger is a Trinity senior and an editor at large of The Chronicle's 119th volume.