Garden Spot | 423 W Franklin Street, Chapel Hill

Things are always changing on Franklin Street, and fast. Businesses pop up, move in, shut down; shops rebrand; scaffolding becomes a permanent sidewalk fixture as construction drags on through long, dreary months. But about halfway down Franklin, hidden from street view, there’s one change that’s gone relatively unnoticed. 

It’s called Garden Spot.

A 60-by-60 lot tucked behind Lantern Restaurant, Garden Spot is a new community space that brings people together to share food, art, music, and culture every weekend. The space was purchased by Lantern Restaurant in 2020 with the goal of building community and uplifting emerging food businesses.

There’s no place like it on Franklin Street, says Sophie Dubois, a server at Lantern who is also working as the Garden Spot program assistant. 

“There’s plenty of good restaurants, but there’s not necessarily a place that people can hang out that isn’t specific to a certain demographic,” Dubois says. “Garden Spot is for anybody who wants to try new food—and it’s a good opportunity for the people making new food to get people to try it.”

Lantern, an upscale Asian-fusion restaurant started by award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, has a history of community engagement—all of its ingredients are locally sourced from North Carolina farmers—but Garden Spot is the first time it’s created a physical space to support small businesses. The space, once an empty parking lot, is now lined with beds of flowers and plants—tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini, this season, among other vegetables and herbs—planted at the June opening, and contains a long gazebo, stage, tables, and bar.

The plan is to do four residencies per year, each running between three and six weeks long, featuring four different vendors. Pop-up events at Garden Spot run for three to four hours every Friday and Saturday evening, giving vendors ample time to sell their products to the community.

Spring Council, Christine Torain, and Zim Torain at a Garden Spot event in June/ Photo by Linda Nguyen

Vendors are chosen based on a rolling application, which allows the team behind the Garden Spot to get to know the owners and determine whether their businesses would be a good fit for an upcoming residency, program coordinator Abby Parcell says.

“We want to support small food businesses who are either just getting started and looking for an opportunity to test out a new concept, or for folks that want to explore what it would be like to move into brick and mortar,” Parcell says. “But we also want to focus particularly on people who have been disadvantaged by our historical and current financing structures and social networks, so we’re focusing on businesses that are run by people of color, women, queer folks.”

This first residency, which kicked off on July 14 and stretches until August 18, features four vendors. There’s Mr. Gravy’s, which serves up Southern comfort food; King’s Pepper, a spice brand known for its award-winning African tacos; Cilantro, a Mexican food catering and salsa business; and Elaka Treats, dishing out handcrafted ice cream inspired by South Indian and Arabic flavors. 

This residency is the first time that some of the vendors have been able to engage with their customers in person. Gail Jennings, the owner of King’s Pepper, primarily sells her spice and African taco kits online, which means she isn’t usually able to observe reactions or hear feedback.

“It was the ideal opportunity for me to manifest the desire I had to sell my African tacos to the public,” Jennings says. “I don’t have a brick and mortar, I don’t have a food truck—so this gave me the opportunity to get real-time reactions.”

Jennings grew up in Los Angeles and learned to cook from the women around her. She experienced West African cuisine in the ’80s, which inspired the King’s Pepper flavor, but her exposure to taco trucks in Los Angeles led her to combine the two cuisines into a new product: the African taco, a vegan mixture of the Mexican street snack and West African black-eyed pea fritters.

Zim Torain of Mr. Gravy’s also learned to cook at a young age—though not by choice, he says jokingly. 

“One summer, I think I was like 10 years old, I was out of food and said to my mom, ‘What are you going to cook for me?’” Torain says. “She was like, ‘Cook for me? You’re 10. You need to start learning how to cook—if you’re going to eat, you’re going to cook yourself.’” So he learned. Decades later, Torain’s mom, Christine, is still by his side but now as a fellow chef for Mr. Gravy’s catering business. They’ve built up a committed fan base in Cedar Grove and Hillsborough, but this residency is the first time they’ve done business in the Chapel Hill area.

“There’s so many people in North Carolina, and sometimes businesses are just so secluded to one customer base,” Torain says. “I want everybody to know about Mr. Gravy’s, and I felt like there’s not a better area than Chapel Hill to kind of get yourself out there.”

But Chapel Hill also wouldn’t be Chapel Hill without its arts scene, which is something else that the Garden Spot is incorporating into its weekend pop-ups. On opening weekend, a sunny Friday evening saw a crowd of 40 lounging around at tables while Cortland Gilliam, Chapel Hill’s new poet laureate, read poetry alongside three other poets. The August 18 event will host local artist John Vance screenprinting T-shirts with their Garden Spot design. 

Parcell is brimming with other ideas for future pop-ups: demonstrations from a garden club about pollinating, a mending circle led by artists, or a quilting lesson from an aficionado in the Northside neighborhood.  

“All those kinds of demos, so that we’re making it a place that’s welcoming for lots of different parts of the community, lots of ages and families,” Parcell says. “Giving people another reason to come be on Franklin Street and to be part of the neighborhood in a different way.”

Both the artists and small businesses benefit from community engagement at these events, but it’s not just the weekend pop-ups that help the food vendors gain experience and exposure. Garden Spot also connects the four vendors with an advisory council made up of nonprofit leaders, restaurants, and experts in the local food scene. In addition to their advice, Garden Spot is partnered with Durham Tech’s Small Business Center so that vendors can learn information about grants and industry tips. 

“There’s so much information that I didn’t know,” Torain says. “It’s almost sad that there’s so much information out there that you don’t know, and until you can get connected with the right people, sometimes it’s hard to find that information.”

In another effort to combat industry gatekeeping, the Garden Spot team is working to eventually set up a peer network so that past vendors can stay connected and advise businesses who are just starting their residencies. 

But for now, the first Garden Spot residency is approaching its last pop-up. Torain says he’ll be sad to see Mr. Gravy’s residency come to an end, but he’s excited for future involvement with the people he’s met and the next round of vendors who will be taking the leap in October. 

“I look at things as a two-way street: if somebody helps you out, it’s supposed to go the other way, too,” Torain says. “I want to stay connected to those people, so I will continue to go down there and support them at the Garden Spot.”

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