NC couple fires up the grill, builds 'pandemic restaurant from scratch' after coronavirus crushed their bar

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Husband and wife team Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker designed their bar, Kingfisher, in Durham, N.C., to bring people together — a big no-no in the age of coronavirus.

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"We were a cocktail-focused bar, opened late July of last year," Umstead told FOX Business. "We built this really unique space: low ceilings, intimate, and it was really designed as a gathering space, a place meet new people. We have a big curved bar. We did everything we could to not separate people."

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In the spring, when the couple realized that they may have to keep Kingfisher closed for months, they knew they had to find additional ways to serve customers. Bars are still unable to open in North Carolina because of the pandemic.

Their solution? Queenburger. It's been a lot of work, but Umstead and Vanderwalker converted space outside their building into an eatery reminiscent of a backyard cookout.

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Customers eat at Queenburger in Durham, N.C. (Stacey Sprenz Photography)

Customers lined up for their opening weekend in mid-August for burgers made of locally sourced Baldwin Beef, bottled cocktails and beer. Instead of fries, Queenburger diners can order Symphony Chips, made by a Black-owned potato chip company based in Atlanta.

Umstead and Walker said they're also donating 15% of profits to we are, an anti-racist education group.

Queenburger's goal is to be "as safe as possible" with cheeky signs displaying social distancing rules and floor markers, Umstead said.

"I don't think that many people have had the chance to build a pandemic restaurant from scratch," he said. Queenburger fits 30 to 34 customers at high-top tables with no chairs to keep people moving through.

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Rain put a damper on opening weekend, but Queenburger will serve customers as long as weather allows. Anything helps to keep the business afloat, Umstead said.

"We had laid off our whole staff. There was no way we could stay functioning," he said. "Folks who were comfortable, we brought back and tried to make sure they felt as safe as possible. … Every night we talk about what worked and what didn't."

He tapped into the Paycheck Protection Program and said he hopes lawmakers greenlight another round.

"PPP is the one we've tapped into. Once it was fixed, it became a really useful program for many people. That clock is still ticking," Umstead said. "I certainly think there's going to be an extreme need, especially in hospitality, for another round of this."

Sean Umstead flips burgers at Queenburger in Durham, N.C. (Stacey Sprenz Photography)

Umstead thinks the true devastation of business closures is yet to be seen because some small business owners are willing to take on debt at the moment.

He also said he agreed with many of the public health decisions North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has made, but is frustrated by rules banning to-go cocktails, which are allowed in many states.

"I don't understand the holdup on to-go cocktails," Umstead said. "It doesn't seem any different from a six-pack of beer. The  argument that people are unable to resist opening them is infantilizing."

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Nevertheless, Umstead and Vanderwalker feel confident they'll weather the pandemic.

"I don't have any doubt at the moment Kingfisher will reopen," Umstead said. "I do think without pivoting and generating some revenue it was becoming more difficult month after month."

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