Zoë Dehmer remembers the day that the reality of the shutdown set in.
“It was the hardest week of my life,” says Dehmer, director of operations and planning at Acme Food & Beverage Company in Carrboro, recalling March 16. “Our good friend Tom Raynor, the former CEO of Fleet Feet, came into town and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to do something, we have to come up with a plan to support the town. We can’t assume anyone else is going to do this.’”
It’s hard to remember much from the panicky haze of last spring (“And who would want to?” Dehmer jokes dryly), but as a refresher: As soon as the shutdown became reality, restaurants were thrust into crisis as they contended with a farm-to-restaurant-to-customer supply chain that had been abruptly severed.
Nobody knew what was going to happen next.
Raynor and Kevin Callaghan, the chef/owner of Acme, scrambled to come up with a plan. By March 19, they’d gotten a refrigerated truck on loan from US Foods and launched Carrboro United, an emergency hub of local restaurants that provided contactless drive-through food pickup for customers in the parking lot of Cat’s Cradle—a CSA, but for restaurant cooking.
For local restaurants, it was a streamlined way to process orders during a crisis; for customers, a one-stop way to source dishes from beloved local purveyors. The curated thrice-weekly menu listed family meals from different restaurants alongside staples like coffee, eggs, and masks.
At first, Dehmer says, people imagined restrictions might last a week or two, or at worst, a month or two. But then March turned into September; then, another March came around.
This past Saturday, Carrboro United reached its one-year anniversary. A few of the organization’s 20 employees—all paid living wage—set up shop in the University Place Parking lot, where pickups have now moved, and waited for customers to begin rolling in.
The staff, wearing masks and tiny orange party hats, were celebrating a few significant statistics, as well, including the $1 million that the hub has put back into the local economy and $45,000 donated to the community organizations that Carrboro United has partnered with.
Also: the sale of 5,476 dozen local eggs, over 1,000 pounds of coffee, and 1,322 pounds of local mushrooms. Vendors, now numbering 45, include Glasshalfull, Venable, Lady Edison, and Carrboro Coffee Roasters. Once small-town competitors, the businesses have grown into something of a motley collective.
“We thought the best [thing] to do was to involve the whole community,” Dehmer says. “We’re in this storm together, and we have to fight together. This is not a time to claim territory.”
Early in the shutdown, Amy McEntee, a Carrboro United regular, was seeking a way to support local businesses while still limiting outside trips. McEntee, a member of several CSAs, was drawn to the ease with which she could integrate Carrboro United into family meals—which, with an 11-year-old son at the table, could go quickly.
“There’s been enough variety where I feel like I can pick and choose things that are healthy and things that are going to be delicious,” says McEntee, who places orders two to three times a week.
Chapel Hill resident Paul Bilden praises the ways that the hub has boosted small restaurants and appreciates the weekly connectivity that the pickups provide; for his part, he’s come to know the staff by name. Meal planning for his family, too, has become easier, and he agrees that the operation will have “legs, even after the pandemic ends.”
“It takes two decisions off of our plate during the week,” Bilden says. “For us, it’s incredibly easy to queue it up on Sunday and have Tuesday and Thursday covered.”
Dehmer notes that she says has seen this trend in customers, who might order an Acme quiche and pair it with a homemade salad, or order a box of restaurant pastries and make them stretch throughout the week. Takeout can be an ad-hoc Friday night decision; a meal hub becomes routine.
Over the past year, restaurants have been forced to reimagine themselves. Chefs alchemized hand sanitizer out of vodka, and restaurant owners concocted a jigsaw puzzle of cocktail kits, specialty grocery items, and heated bubbles.
Along the way, Carrboro United has remained a constant for its vendors, growing from an emergency provision to a guiding light for other area food hubs, like the Chatham Food Hub and the ko.mmunity hub in Cary. It’s also become somewhat of a national model: In October, The Wall Street Journal cited Carrboro United in a trend piece about the future of restaurants.
“The response was just so overwhelmingly supportive from the community that as a couple of weeks went on, it was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole business we just created. What have we done?’” Dehmer says. “We started to firm up an idea of how it could be more than just an emergency response—how it could be a response to a need that maybe wasn’t being met before.”
Restaurants have faced existential reckonings several times over, this year, and may never return as we knew them—too much has shifted, both for restaurant owners and diners.
But, as Dehmer points out, “The need for eating isn’t going anywhere.”
“I think that this conversation is playing out across the country: How do we change our perception of how a restaurant functions in a community?” Dehmer says. “What opportunity would both serve restaurants and their customers? I think that both the customers and businesses are seeking more stability in the relationship they have with each other. After this year, that has become more apparent.
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