By Laurie Paolicelli
Like the rest of our state, this country, and the world, Orange County is changing in ways we did not anticipate or could prepare for. Behind every door – and that’s where most of us are these days, behind doors – is a story. Heroism takes many forms, but for those of us not on the front lines in hospitals and clinics heroism can look like this: staying home, socially distancing, gathering with only those who are closest to us – flattening the curve. But what we’re learning is that we’re more interconnected than we ever knew. Even as we do our best to keep ourselves and others healthy, this virus touches us all.
Restaurants, among so many of our local businesses, have been severely battered by Covid-19: obviously, an industry predicated on gathering large groups of people together in a single room would be among the first to feel the pain. Some of our favorite venues are literally shuttered, doors and windows boarded up until this crisis is over. And their employees scattered to the wind.
But many restaurants have persevered under these conditions and, believe it or not, some of them are almost flourishing. One of them is Jujube, the Asian Fusion restaurant in Glenn Lenox Plaza. Glenn Lenox Plaza was the first shopping mall built in Chapel Hill and the second in North Carolina, in 1952. Other than the businesses that have come and gone over the years, it’s nearly unchanged, with its lovely sign and stream-lined aesthetics. A lot of life has happened here in the last 68 years, but nothing like this virus.
Sarah Vickery has been the manager of Jujube’s since November of 2018. Restaurants like Jujube that had a small or even non-existent take-out and delivery arm are working hard to highlight that aspect of their services. After indoor seating was closed, Sarah took an aggressive approach to expanding Jujube’s delivery options. She worked in tandem with Brittany French, who manages Juju, Jujube’s sister store in Durham, and who oversees both restaurants.
“A lot of it has been solving problems on the fly and really instituting systems as we go,” Sarah says. “We figure out what works best and what’s most efficient.” Including rolling out online ordering in the midst of it all. That eased up the phone lines and allowed even more orders to get through.
“I think the good thing with Jujube is that we offer a couple of different ways for people to order so they can do a wine pairing, they can do the family style or a combination of both, or they can order regular dinner between five and eight. And it’s really brought people in.”
In, but not inside. After calling in or ordering online, your food is brought outside and placed by gloved runners – waiters, they used to be called – into your trunk.
“We’re probably doing about the same dollars in sales as far as food as we would on a normal night,” she says, “and we’re doing it in three hours. I mean it’s been pretty amazing. ‘We love you so much. We just want to support you.’ People are really coming out specifically to support to make sure that we’re here for the long term. They’re tipping generously too. One customer called in and said, ‘I don’t want anything. I just want to give you $50, just to support the business.”
The great news is that Jujube has been able to retain a good deal of their workforce, 75% of back of house and 50% of the front. That’s not everyone, but it’s something. It’s a crew they hope to keep on until they make it to the other side of this pandemic.
“I think we’re definitely learning things in this experience that we can put to use down the road,” Sarah says. “I think it’s unforeseeable now, but I’m certain they will be.”
Everything is unforeseeable now, though, whether you’re in the restaurant business or not. But what Jujube is learning – as we are learning too – is just how much this community means to us all, how much we mean to each other. And how much we need each other. How simply by ordering a meal from one of your favorite places can do so much. Our business keeps them in business, and it helps support so many others. And yes, “eating out” is an indulgence, for sure. But sometimes indulging yourself is the most heroic thing you can do.
Here are some ways to support our area restaurants:
Area Food Hubs:
Pick up fresh produce, quality meats, and prepared meals three times a week in the heart of Carrboro. Feed your family while putting money back into the local economy.
Feed the Fight Chapel Hill
All Chapel Hill restaurants, all meals going to UNC Healthcare in Chapel Hill, organized entirely by community members.
Feed the Soul
Organized by the North Carolina Healthcare Association (NCHA), working with Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe and other Triangle area restaurants to serve UNC Healthcare and other area hospitals.
‘World’s Biggest Tip Jar’ to Support Service Workers
The Wooden Nickel and the Hillsborough and Orange County Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to raise money for service workers who have lost their jobs and income due to the coronavirus pandemic. You can find the individual Venmo account numbers here.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.