Dining in the Triangle: Where We Stand

Adapting, rebounding, and now treading water

At Garland in Raleigh, Cheetie Kumar and Paul Siler transformed the front sidewalk into an outdoor dining area
At Garland in Raleigh, Cheetie Kumar and Paul Siler transformed the front sidewalk into an outdoor dining area (Paul Siler/Garland)

By Matthew Lardie

531 days. That’s how long it's been since Governor Roy Cooper announced an initial 30-day statewide stay at home order on March 27th, 2020. In an instant restaurants and bars across the Triangle were forced to close their doors, furlough staff, and figure out what came next. With many restaurants running on paper-thin margins that require nightly cash flow, 30 days seemed almost insurmountable. An analysis by WRAL counted more than 105 area restaurants that closed in 2020. And yet 531 days later, a great many are still here.

It is no exaggeration to say that this has been the most difficult era for the American hospitality industry in living memory. Here in the Triangle restaurants have had to navigate a myriad of confusing and fast-changing local, state, and federal mandates and recommendations, all while attempting that now-familiar pandemic pivot and doing everything in their power to just keep from drowning.

We reached out to four chefs from around the Triangle to get a sense of what things were like for them during those hectic first moments of the pandemic, to see how they’re doing now, and hear what they think the future looks like for North Carolina’s restaurant industry.


As news of the pandemic spread and countries across the globe went into lockdown, some chefs realized that a lockdown in the Carolinas was a question of when, not if.

“We saw the writing on the wall.” - Cheetie Kumar, Garland, Raleigh

“From hour to hour things were changing so much,” says Garland chef and co-owner Cheetie Kumar. Kumar and her husband, Paul Siler, decided to close the restaurant’s doors the day before the Governor’s stay-at-home order was announced, but they had no idea for how long they would need to stay shut.

Cheetie Kumar, chef and co-owner of Garland in Raleigh
Cheetie Kumar, chef and co-owner of Garland in Raleigh (Anna Routh Barzin)

“We were thinking four to six weeks at that point,” Kumar recalls. She got to work calling her employees.

When asked to describe that experience Kumar pauses before saying, simply, “Awful.”

“We had to call 42 people,” she continues. “It was exhausting. It was hard. I felt like a monster. I felt like a failure. It was the worst day.”

Across the Triangle chefs and restaurant owners were having those same conversations with hundreds of employees. Many realized that in order to have their workers qualify for unemployment benefits they would need to be furloughed or laid off, using specific language that would be recognized by the state.

“Anybody that could get unemployment, we gave them all the paperwork,” Kumar remembers.

In the Wild West days of the early pandemic it was every business for itself, and Garland, like countless restaurants across America, was left to try to figure out a path forward amidst often-conflicting advice from national, state, and local governments.

Recovery, Then Complication

In late spring of 2021, nearly a year into the pandemic, more and more diners had been vaccinated, and some semblance of normal began to return for many restaurants. Warming weather meant more outdoor dining, and capacity increases for indoor dining allowed many restaurants to hire back old staff or bring on new employees. Media outlets were trumpeting the new “Roaring Twenties,” and it seemed as though the light at the end of the tunnel was just ahead.

Enter the Delta Variant. Within a few short weeks in August it quickly became clear that hard-fought gains were being lost to this new, more virulent strain of COVID-19, which was causing breakthrough infections and leading to a new round of restrictions.

At Lantern In Chapel Hill, Chef Andrea Reusing had just decided to reopen for regular indoor dining when the Delta spike hit. (They had closed nightly indoor service at the start of the pandemic).

“Eight weeks ago we decided to try indoor dining, and we started hiring front of house staff,” Reusing says. “As the course of training went on Delta became more and more of a threat.” Ultimately Reusing decided to shelve plans for re-opening inside and not move forward with some of the hires she had hoped to make.

“I’m worried about keeping the staff safe if we’re open indoors,” she says.

At Alley Twenty Six in Durham, Chef Carrie Schleiffer was also in the midst of hiring while trying to adjust to another pandemic plot twist. “Our staff is 100% vaccinated, and all new hires are required to be vaccinated too,” she points out. “We have taken all the necessary precautions to try to provide as safe and comfortable an environment as possible for both staff and customers.”

When asked if she thought what might happen if case numbers really climb due to the Delta variant she’s frank. “Unfortunately it looks like it's trending in that direction. I wish I had a better answer for you but we just don’t know.”

“We used to say we were on the 10 day pivot plan,” she continues. “Meaning every 10 days we would have to change our business plan to accommodate the current situation. I feel like we’re heading back there.”

On the western side of Durham, chef Christopher McLaurin at Picnic has had to balance demand for indoor dining with concerns for staff safety. Picnic has chosen to keep its dining room closed, offering only to-go food and seating at outdoor picnic tables.

“We have definitely heard from some customers who wish we were fully open, but a majority of our guests seem to understand our decision,” he emphasizes.

Wyatt Dickson and Chris McLaurin of Picnic in Durham put expansion plans on hold and focused on to-go orders and outdoor dining
Wyatt Dickson and Chris McLaurin of Picnic in Durham put expansion plans on hold and focused on to-go orders and outdoor dining (Jennifer Noble Kelly/JNK Public Relations)

McLaurin, along with Picnic’s pitmaster/co-owner Wyatt Dickson and farmer/co-owner Ryan Butler, had been set to open a new restaurant in Raleigh called Wyatt’s Barbecue. After more than a year of planning and pandemic pop-ups to build buzz for the new venture, they ultimately decided earlier this summer not to go forward with the new location, as concerns about the Delta variant began to grow and prices for construction and raw ingredients continued to climb. (See What Happened to the Raleigh BBQ Boom? for more.)

“The increased costs of doing business during COVID are real,” McLaurin says. “Every week we get notices from suppliers about increased prices or shortages.” Combined with the skyrocketing costs of things like lumber and steel, some very difficult choices had to be made.

“These price increases were a major reason that the Raleigh project was cancelled and also a reason we’ve held off on some changes we’d like to implement at Picnic,” he says. “We’ve discussed building an outdoor bar or covering the side yard with a roof of some sort, but both ideas are on hold until prices go down.”

Treading Water

These days, many Triangle restaurants are back in a holding pattern. Most have hit pause on any plans for expansion, and everyone is essentially just treading water as they wait to see how the new uptick in the virus unfolds. The days of outdoor dining (which were a lifeline for many) are unfortunately numbered as summer winds down and cooler temperatures are on the horizon.

“I keep thinking that there is some silver bullet I’m not thinking of.” - Andrea Reusing, Lantern

As summer turns to fall and the pandemic continues to rage, most of the chefs we spoke with have mixed feelings about what the future holds.

Alley Twenty Six has been luckier than most restaurants because they have an actual alley that they’ve been able to use for outdoor dining. “Last winter we put heaters out, we salted the alleyway,” Chef Schleiffer remembers. “People clearly wanted to support local businesses, and they wanted out of the house, so they sat through it [the weather], so to speak.”

“We’ll do our best to accommodate [guests] in the same capacity this winter if things get more extreme again,” she says.

“I don’t know what will happen with our indoor seating,” she adds, “but we will set plans in motion as we go and learn in the moment.”

Over in Chapel Hill, Reusing is trying to balance optimism with reality. “You don’t want to feel like doom and gloom,” she admits, “but it seems slightly naive to pretend things aren’t going to get bad again.”

That said, Reusing is moving forward with plans for a more robust outdoor dining set-up, and she’s booking private parties indoors with proof of vaccination required for all guests. She also has plans to open a sort of incubator pop-up restaurant, turning over Lantern’s outdoor space to young cooks who want to test out their own concept. She sees value in the space that the pandemic has provided to have serious conversations about some of the social and racial struggles the restaurant industry has wrestled with as of late.

“A bunch of things are changed forever, and some of those things are really positive,” she insists. “It’s a lot easier for small businesses to have conversations about labor and equity.”

Back in Raleigh, Kumar and the staff at Garland are also wrestling with how to map out a way forward as things seem to be backsliding.

“Having that three months [over the summer] to get back to recovering, and seeing how hard that was . . .” She trails off. “But it worked.”

Kumar, like millions of people across the globe, has been personally touched by the COVID-19 pandemic. She was left to watch helplessly from America as the Delta variant exploded in India, taking the lives of some of her own family members.

“Do you ever run with weights on?,” she asks. “Everything just felt heavy.”

“All of your emergency reserves are gone, in a physical, emotional, and creative sense,” she adds.

For chefs like Kumar, Schleiffer, Reusing, and McLaurin, who are used to operating in an industry with tight margins and where business survival can hinge on one good weekend or one good season, they now have the added burden of functioning as their own miniature public health departments, making decisions that could see them choosing between their restaurant staying open or their staff becoming ill, or worse.

“It would be cheaper for us to completely shut down right now,” Reusing acknowledges, but she notes in the same breath noting that she is providing a livelihood for her employees, which is her motivation to keep Lantern operating in whatever capacity she can.

And at Garland, Kumar says, “I want to be optimistic, but we just can’t really predict anything more than a week or two out.”

“Honestly I don’t know how we’re going to survive this next hit,” she continues. “It’s coming.”


About the Author

Matthew Lardie

Matt Lardie is a food, beverage, and lifestyle writer. Born and raised in New England, he has been exploring and eating his way through the Carolinas since 2008. He has been published in Our State Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Apartment Therapy, Eater Carolinas, The Kitchn, Durham Magazine, and more. His first book, Unique Eats and Eateries: North Carolina, is due to be published in the fall of 2022. He lives in Durham, NC.

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