When a business doesn’t live up to its name, that’s usually something its owner is concerned about.
But Sean Lilly Wilson, founder and self-styled “chief executive optimist” at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, seems just fine with performing at a slower pace than might be expected under Phase 2 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s economic reopening.
In the wake of last week’s “Safer-At-Home” order allowing restaurants, breweries, salons and barbershops, child care centers and other forms of activity to reopen while keeping bars, gyms, movie theaters and other sites of public congregation shut, Wilson remains content to confine his business to curbside pickups of burgers and sandwiches, beer and bottled wine until further notice.
Other states have witnessed a “free-for-all celebration” when lifting their own commercial restrictions, but Wilson wants no part of that, he said.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” he told Carolina Public Press. “We as a society want to just be like ‘it’s over,’ but it’s not, it’s just not.”
Wilson’s decision not to charge full steam ahead was made before last week’s announcement by Steve Schewel, Durham’s mayor, that he would not roll out Phase 2 until June 1 due to an accelerating rate of COVID-19 infections in his city.
“The city mandating this extension affords us more time that we were going to take anyway to go about our plans to reopen in a thoughtful and deliberate manner,” said Wilson, who indicated that he may not open even after the mayor’s extension is lifted.
It also places him in stark contrast to businesses like LM Restaurants, the food and spirits enterprise whose brands include Carolina Ale House and Hops Supply Co., which opened on Friday.
The contrast is even stronger with establishments like Mitchem’s Kitchen in Vale, a modest country restaurant in Lincoln County that received a citation for deliberately reopening in protest during Phase 1.
Zoom but stay closed
In Durham, Fullsteam Brewery is taking a methodical approach to reopening, with Wilson leading Zoom conferences during which he and his 36-member staff discuss things like marking floors, wearing masks, hand sanitizing and how to deal with individuals who fail to comply with social distancing.
Under Phase 2, reopened businesses must limit their maximum customer count to 50% of licensed occupancy and ensure that customers do not cluster in groups of more than 10 at a time. “It’s a difficult logistics challenge,” Wilson said.
Discussions are supplemented by a 20-page manual of standard operating procedures built around COVID-19-focused issues.
Fullsteam Brewery holds a license to sell malt beverage, beer and wine. It does not serve liquor, and the brewery is inspected as a restaurant.
The operation hosted food trucks during its first seven years before installing a small kitchen on the premises in 2017. In January 2020, it returned to hosting food trucks while it renovated the kitchen, which reopened just as the pandemic began sweeping the state.
The 14,000-square-foot brewery — only 4,000 of which is open to customers — was helped during the initial stay-at-home period by its nonretail line of business.
“We’re a packaging brewery that has our beer at Harris Teeter and we distribute to four states,” Wilson said.
But other, smaller establishments that are not as diversified face tougher challenges.
For them, “The 50% capacity just doesn’t work,” he said. “The fixed costs don’t change.”
At Raleigh-based LM Restaurants, most brands reopened last Friday on a full-service basis, except for several locations that were completing renovations and will open this week, said Katherine Goldfaden, LM’s senior director of brands.
Bar service within LM properties will go live on a “location-by-location” basis.
“If we can accommodate guests with sufficient social distancing, we will serve at the bar,” she said.
“Carolina Ale House locations have reorganized the dining room to provide the necessary space. We have created table seating at the bar to provide a bar experience but with safety measures.”
Three LM brands — Bluewater Grill, Oceanic and Hops Supply — have locations in Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington, and each is just down the road from Wrightsville Beach Brewery, whose owner, Jud Watkins, said he is taking “baby steps” to reopen.
The aim, Watkins told Carolina Public Press, is to “get people to sit down and spread out” for both food and drink.
His three-step rollout began Friday with the reopening of the brewery’s beer garden. “We’ve had to pull all the tables apart and pull them out” for social distancing, Watkins said, with 10-foot and not 6-foot separation being used.
The second step is to allow indoor dining, employing the 6-foot and 50% rules.
The taproom, which can get crowded fast, comes last.
“Coordinating this with reduced staff numbers — a large number have expressed a desire to stay home for a while longer — is going to be a challenge. We will just have to watch, learn and assess,” Watkins said. “We’re just trying to stay within the governor’s intent.”
In the western part of the state, Carroll Mitchem, who serves as chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners and owns Mitchem’s Kitchen, expressed no regrets about flouting the governor’s Phase 1 lockdown when he reopened on May 17.
The sheriff handed him a citation the next day.
Mitchem said his dine-in business “doubled, maybe more,” with some people waiting in cars for up to one hour before being ushered into the dining room, from which some tables and chairs had been removed for social distancing.
Mitchem dismissed accusations that it was all a stunt to drum up business.
“This country is founded on freedom of choices,” he said. “I have choices. So, my people’s choices were taken away from them, and they came here.”
Mitchem said Lincoln County Sheriff Bill Beam delivered the citation personally, but remains a friend.
“He did what he thought was right to do,” Mitchem said. “I did what I thought was right to do.”
Brewery or bar?
Following a brief kerfuffle between the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild and the governor’s office over whether breweries, taprooms and brewpubs would be able to reopen Friday, the guild announced that the matter was resolved and that those establishments could, in fact, reopen.
North Carolina is home to more than 300 craft breweries, the largest number in the South, the organization says on its website.
Bars, as distinguished from other food and beverage establishments, are defined as making less than 30% of their gross sales from food, with alcohol the focus of their business.
The governor’s Phase 2 executive order is scheduled to expire June 26, at which time Phase 3, the final phase of the state’s economic reopening plan, would kick in.
No date has yet been set for the reopening of bars, although that might not happen until Phase 3, which calls for increased capacity at both restaurants and bars. It also increases capacity at entertainment venues and increases the number of people permitted at mass gatherings.