By Laurie Paolicelli
November is a month of gratitude. The month begins with All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge and thank the people in our community who have given of themselves to brighten our lives, to create a better Chapel Hill, a better Orange County.
Mickey Ewell was one of those people. Mickey died earlier this year but his legacy – the restaurants and entrepreneurial creativity of the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group he founded – lives on.
The Chapel Hill Restaurant Group owns and operates Squids in Chapel Hill, 411 on Franklin Street downtown as well as Mez, Page Road Grill and LuLuBangBang, which will open soon in RTP. The group recently made the tough decision to close Lula’s, which had replaced Spanky’s in downtown Chapel Hill, due to pandemic related hardships.
The Chapel Hill Restaurant Group is made-up of hard-working, inspired, smart leaders. Greg Overbeck, Pete Dorrance, Kenny Carlson are managing partners, joined by Tommy O’Connell, Tom Herzog, Jamie LaForce, and Jen Anderson, each who own a percentage. Acclaimed chef William Duvray will be a managing partner at LuLuBangBang.
Each of them have invested in North Carolina’s hospitality scene as well as its education and sports industry, giving back to charities, civic groups, and helping the next generation succeed. Pete Dorrance, alongside his brother Anson Dorrance, the head coach of the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina, can often be seen helping out at local Chapel Hill events.
It takes community to build community, and this group shows up, gives back and keeps reinventing itself.
Boldly Going Where No Chapel Hill Restaurant Had Gone Before
“All of us learned a lot from Mickey,” says Greg Overbeck. “His early bold moves with Harrisons and Spanky’s greatly impacted the Chapel Hill landscape. Squids was originally an attempt by Pete, Kenny and I to break away and do our own restaurant after managing Spanky’s for a few years, but Mickey suggested we stick together, and his willingness to finance the effort enabled it to happen.”
Overbeck said one of the defining decisions the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group had to make was the decision to buy their properties instead of leasing them. “This is what’s helped us survive through these difficult times.”
Mickey’s idea for 411 West in downtown Chapel Hill was modeled on a restaurant in Georgetown that he loved. “The next big step was our expansion to Raleigh with 518 West, another bold move that originated with Mickey’s courageous entrepreneurial spirit,” said Greg.
Then Mickey contracted Parkinson’s Disease. It was devastating, but the Group came together put in long hours to sustain Mickey’s vision. And even though Mickey’s health was declining, Overbeck said he still visited the restaurants and had a sharp eye for things that needed to be addressed.
What Drove Mickey Ewell Continues to Drive Chapel Hill Leaders
“Mickey was born an entrepreneur and wanted to succeed. He had vision and courage – a formidable combination. He wasn’t afraid to risk everything on whatever the next project was, and that enabled us to continue expanding and taking chances on the west end of Franklin Street, the Glenwood district in Raleigh, and the RTP.”
Like Mickey, Greg supports Chapel Hill leadership on its current decision to bring back the MOJO by experimenting with new walking lanes, expanded sidewalks and investing in more art.
“I envision green areas, gathering places, and tables for dining or just hanging out. I think a continued focus on walking areas will bring back a mix of retail we’re sorely lacking, and with this type of bold move we will see students coming to Franklin Street for more than to-go food and collegiate imbibing. Like Mickey, Chapel Hill leaders must make some innovative decisions to keep Chapel Hill vital and relevant.”
Supporting the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group Now
“Our family has loved Squid’s for more than 20 years. It’s been our go-to for early dates, babies, and now with our teenagers. In this pandemic we are grateful for their fresh seafood and the comforting familiarity. Enjoying a Squid’s lobster is such a treat. I’m glad they are offering take-out.” Laura Morgan, Chapel Hill realtor, wife and mom of three.
All the restaurants are open – Squid’s for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 411 West for dinner seven nights a week, MEZ and Page Road Grill are open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner (11:30 am – 8:00 am) and Saturday dinner from 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm.
“Guests can help us most by continuing to support us, as they have since the beginning of the pandemic, by ordering food to-go, dining at the restaurants (outdoor seating or inside at 50% capacity, of course), and by purchasing gift certificates at any of the restaurants. A gift card from any of our restaurants is redeemable at all of the member restaurants of CHRG and makes a great holiday gift.”
We hope folks will think of the Catering division. We provide full service catering for weddings, local businesses, local universities, sports teams, and private events throughout the Triangle.
Investing in Our Future by Remembering Our Past
When the Spanky’s Restaurant Facebook page shared the news of Ewell’s condition and diagnosis, they asked people to share their memories of the restaurant. More than 100 users commented, sharing photos and remembrances ranging from their favorite meals to working there as college students – even meeting their future spouses there.
As we know all too well, moving through these challenging days and nights, a restaurant is much more than a place to eat. It’s where a community comes together to commune. The sound of other human voices, the attentive care of your favorite waiter, the bartender who knows your name, and your drink. A restaurant is a feast for the mind, the heart and the body. This is the legacy of Mickey Ewell. Say grace.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.