Over the past few years, the Raleigh-Durham drinks scene has seen ambitious cocktail bars, craft distilleries and breweries, and even private lounges cropping up. It’s the kind of place where dives and the fancy spots merit equal importance, and coexist on a level playing field. It’s important to note, however, that North Carolina is a controlled state, meaning alcohol is more stringently regulated, and—outside of bars and restaurants—must be purchased from an ABC store.
When coronavirus panic hit the Research Triangle area two weeks ago, it spread swiftly and suddenly, and on Tuesday, March 17, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all bars and restaurants to close down, with the exception of those offering food delivery and takeout. However, the same privileges were not extended to alcohol. The bar scene in the city is now nonexistent. Members of the industry are attempting to find ways beyond the exchange of alcohol to stay engaged with their regulars and maintain positivity during these dark moments.
Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker | Owners, Kingfisher
Only 10 months old, Durham’s Kingfisher had distinguished itself by focusing on North Carolina flavors and spirits. Now, owners Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker are raising money for their employees with virtual happy hours.
When all the sports leagues started to shut down two Thursdays ago, we really saw a dramatic decrease in the business. People in the city really took it to heart when the NBA and college basketball were canceled. We first decided to limit the number of people in the bar. We didn’t allow standing room, and created a makeshift patio.
But the environment started to become untenable. The bar just lost all feeling of hospitality. There was real friction between guests and employees, and as much as we wanted to be thankful people were supporting us, it just became this drain by the end of service on Saturday. There were guests who didn’t seem to be paying attention to what was going on, and staffers were trying to be safer, and it was hard to manage that while still being friendly. We were hoping the government would act, but we felt like we had a responsibility to act on behalf of our employees’ safety. By the end of the shift on Sunday, it was clear that there wasn’t a path forward.
We came up with a solution to offer everyone who worked here $400 a week for the next month—a basic bar income—and we would allow people to take $1,000 of an advance against their future earnings. We wanted to give people as much access to our finances as we could, and put them at ease. We started these virtual happy hours as a way to stay in touch with our community and guests and provide a little bit of regularity to our days.
Melissa Katrincic | Co-founder, Durham Distillery
The Durham Distillery is known for its fusion of heirloom gin-making traditions with forward-thinking chemistry. With a gin lounge debut on pause, founders Lee and Melissa Katrincic have recently pivoted their production to hand sanitizer.
Lee and I come from a pharmaceutical and scientific background, and we felt like this was heading toward a pandemic. We had an idea to make sanitizing spray to distribute to restaurant professionals, since hand sanitizer was in short supply. We knew we had the capability and the supply—no one can buy that level of ethanol besides distilleries. We presented to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and they approved it 24 hours later. We were suddenly buying plastic bottles and glycerin and hydrogen peroxide. In the first few days, over 50 establishments came and picked up these donated sanitizing sprays.
We are now on the task force for the American Craft Distillers Association, working with federal agencies to set guidelines for breweries and distilleries making hand sanitizer. We have pivoted to making gel hand sanitizer at the request of the state, which wants us to make it for first responders and potentially healthcare workers. We are having to figure out a new distribution model. It’s a whole new world.
At the distillery, we have paused production, but we are thankfully in a good space right now with orders. But sales are ultimately driven by on-premise trials, so we know that we will see a revenue drop in a matter of a couple of weeks. North Carolina hasn’t implemented a delivery model for alcohol, like other states have. There is just so much politicized around alcohol in this state, I just don’t see it happening.
Jerry McNeill | Bartender, The Crunkleton
The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill is famous for its warm hospitality and an encyclopedic library of spirits. As panic slowly set in, maintaining a cheery atmosphere became harder and harder for bartender Jerry McNeill.
Sunday [March 15] was the last shift I worked. It was really odd to work that shift with the suggestion of social distancing. It is so ingrained in bartenders’ DNA to shake hands, to be really hospitable toward the guests. I was trying to do everything I could to wash my hands at any point, but you’re interacting with maybe four couples at the bar, handling cash from one guest, touching a drink glass from another guest. It made the job virtually impossible to do. You feel like all eyes are watching your every move. If people are uncomfortable about a topic or something is bothering everyone, you try to change the subject to something more favorable. But this was something that was on everyone’s mind. It was part of everyone’s conversations.
That Sunday, after getting everyone’s input, we decided to shut the place down. When I shut the door that next day and locked up after cleaning up, I just stood there for a second and thought, “What is going to happen here?” It is uncharted territory. There is a great level of uncertainty with our bar.
I have been in school for IT and computer programming, so I am leaning hard on that. I am going to be faced with the decision of whether to break away from bartending and focus on something that is going to be a little more sustainable. It is not that I am not going to miss bartending. But you are doing whatever you can to help your family.
Kim Cates | Owner, Shooters II
There is no bar more beloved to Duke students than Shooters II. A charming dive run by Kim Cates, Shooters II was forced to shut its doors in the wake of Duke canceling all in-person classes and the city of Durham shutting down businesses. It was the first time Cates has closed up shop in 21 years.
Our last busy night was [March 7] when Duke and Carolina played. It was packed. And then the kids went on spring break. I was also out of town, and while I was on vacation I was getting messages from students who wanted to know if I was going to be open when they got back because they need a place to go, since classes had all been canceled. I hadn’t been told I would have to close down yet, and people were so relieved. I have been in business for 21 years and I am a social person, so I just couldn’t imagine closing.
I was then told that I had to keep my capacity at under 100, so I started doing private parties with a guest list. That Saturday we had about 84 people. But on Sunday, I opened up at around 10 p.m. and waited and waited, and I kept texting people. No one had come. Then I received a message that said everyone is scared to come out because they issued an alert about people going out. Around 12:30 I was getting ready to close up and six people came through the door. They stayed until 1:30. We made sure they had something to drink. They danced. I guess they had been cooped up and wanted to do something. But after that, I knew I had to close.
It has been difficult. I am a hugger. And I have not hugged people. As of yesterday, I have stopped crying. I have seen a lot of people asking for donations for their business. I can’t see myself doing that because we aren’t the only people going through this and people need to keep their money. They are going to need it in the long run.