Category: Entreprise


Crook’s Corner, a Landmark North Carolina Restaurant, Has Closed


Crook’s Corner, the restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., that helped spark a renaissance in Southern cuisine starting in the 1980s, has permanently closed, Shannon Healy, an owner, said Wednesday.

Mr. Healy said the business, which shut down in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, struggled to regain its footing after reopening last fall. It served its final meals on Sunday night.

“The pandemic kind of crushed us,” he said. “We were trying to reorganize some debt, and we just couldn’t get it done.”

Crook’s Corner was opened in 1982 by Gene Hamer and Bill Neal inside a former fish market. Mr. Neal had made his name locally as a chef with the French restaurant La Résidence, which he opened with his wife, Moreton Neal. He envisioned Crook’s as a new kind of Southern restaurant: a place where the region’s food would be treated with reverence.

This was unusual in the early 1980s, said Bill Smith, a longtime chef at the restaurant. “Crook’s treated Southern cuisine like it was delicious cuisine instead of the food of the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. Mr. Neal “insisted Southern cuisine belonged in the pantheon.”

The restaurant caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor, who was himself a Southerner. In a 1985 article, Mr. Claiborne called Mr. Neal “one of today’s finest young Southern chefs,” and praised Crook’s versions of hoppin’ John, shrimp and grits and muddle, a fish stew from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Crook’s, as locals referred to it, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focusing on local cuisine and ingredients, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, an emeritus professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It was one of those sites — and there weren’t many around our country in 1980s — where restaurateurs, farmers, food entrepreneurs and local craftspeople were starting to come together,” Dr. Ferris said. “Then Crook’s becomes this incubator of new Southern cuisine, because so many young people come through there.”

The James Beard award winners John Currence, of Oxford, Miss., and Robert Stehling, of Charleston, S.C., are among the prominent Southern chefs who worked with Mr. Neal early in their careers.

Mr. Neal died of AIDS at age 41, in 1991. Mr. Smith, who worked with Mr. Neal at La Résidence, took over the kitchen at Crook’s, and continued to introduce signature Southern dishes, like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Beach pie, a lemon pie with a saltine cracker crust.

The casual restaurant, known for its fiberglass pig statue and hubcap collection outside, never relied on the trappings of European fine dining. And the menu was always seasonal. “If you could get soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet on the same night, that was reason for celebration,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith retired soon after Mr. Healy and his business partner, Gary Crunkleton, bought Crook’s from Mr. Hamer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer took over as chef from Justin Burdett, Mr. Smith’s successor, in April.

Mr. Healy was a bartender and manager at the restaurant for years before he became an owner. He said he was drawn to the restaurant in part by its lack of pretension.

“Instead of making simple things sound fancy, they did the opposite,” he said, like using the words “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu instead of aioli. “The tables looked like an old diner on purpose. When it opened, the idea that you were doing excellent food in a non-white-tablecloth environment was very different.”


A Black Whiskey Entrepreneur Will Help Bankroll Others Like Her


In 2016, Ms. Weaver, then a Los Angeles-based author and real estate investor, traveled to Lynchburg, Tenn., to research a potential book about Nearest Green, an expert distiller whose real name was Nathan. Mr. Green, while enslaved there, had mentored a young Jack Daniel.

Ms. Weaver’s ambitions quickly grew; she persuaded Brown-Forman to formally acknowledge Mr. Green as the brand’s first master distiller, and the following year she created the whiskey in Nearest’s name.

She said her fruitless search for a Black master distiller led her to fully comprehend the overwhelming whiteness of the world of American spirits. Margie A.S. Lehrman, the chief executive of the American Craft Spirits Association, said that the lack of diversity has long been an issue for the industry, and that only a handful of American distilleries are Black-owned or Black-run.

“It’s not that people of color don’t have an interest. It’s that we find that they have no path of entry into the industry, no connections where others may,” Ms. Lehrman said. “It’s a very, very tough industry to break into, and if you’re a woman or a person of color, it’s even harder.”

In the summer of 2020, Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s announced a joint $5 million initiative intended to bring more Black entrepreneurs into distilling, in part by offering resources and mentorship to one Black-owned spirits company each year. So many Black entrepreneurs reached out for help that Uncle Nearest began its own side project, the Black Business Booster program, to help 16 companies at once.

Ms. Weaver said she quickly realized that no amount of support with branding, strategy and publicity would make a difference if these entrepreneurs continued to be shut out from capital. “Fund-raising is all about relationships,” she said. “If you don’t have those relationships, only a tiny fraction of people pitching investors will see funding.”


Still Here and Still Queer: The Gay Restaurant Endures


Scott Frankel’s favorite memories of New York gay restaurants aren’t about food.

Universal Grill cranked “Dancing Queen” on birthdays. There was that incredibly hot Italian waiter at Food Bar. Florent was around the corner from a notorious sex club in the meatpacking district. Manatus was so gay, it had a sobriquet: Mana-tush.

Gay restaurants, said Mr. Frankel, the Tony-nominated composer of the musical “Grey Gardens,” “made you feel like you belonged.”

But all those places he so fondly remembers are long closed, as are Harvest, Orbit’s and several others listed in an article, headlined “Restaurants That Roll Out the Welcome Mat for Gay Diners,” that ran in this newspaper 27 years ago. It now reads like an obituary.

Restaurants fold all the time, perhaps nowhere more so than in New York, and perhaps never as much as during the Covid era. The pandemic hit the country’s urban gay restaurants especially hard, said Justin Nelson, the president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. MeMe’s Diner, a popular queer restaurant in Brooklyn, permanently closed in November, citing shutdown measures and a lack of government support.

Gay restaurants, like gay bars, are also facing crises of identity and purpose in a time that is in many ways more welcoming than the past, when gay people sought out gay restaurants because they offered safety and acceptance that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

Lesbians went to Bloodroot, a still-busy vegetarian restaurant in Bridgeport, Conn., that sprang from the lesbian feminist movement of the 1970s. Gay men frequented places like Orphan Andy’s, a campy diner from the same decade that’s still in business in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. Atlanta had Waterworks, which a 1992 newsletter for the group Black and White Men Together called the city’s “only Black-owned gay restaurant.”

Today, many L.G.B.T.Q. Americans feel free to be their full selves in almost any setting. And shifting conceptions of sexuality and gender extend beyond what words like gay, lesbian, male or female can accommodate. A gay restaurant can just sound fuddy-duddy.

“Many of the more privileged young queer people have grown up with inclusion, so they don’t feel the need to be in a place where you’re sheltered from heterosexism,” said Julie Podmore, an urban geographer at Concordia University in Montreal.

That may be the case in New York City, where gay restaurants are going the way of dinosaurs (if not yet extinct — Elmo and other spots are still keeping their gay fan base fed).

But elsewhere in the country, many gay restaurants are thriving — as treasured local businesses, de facto community centers, refuges from continuing anti-queer violence and potential paths forward for a restaurant industry in recovery.

On a recent Saturday night in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, Annie’s Paramount Steak House was busy, and it was gay. Two dads and their two kids ate at a table in an outside area festooned with rainbows. Three 20-something gay men shared fries. An older couple smiled as they watched a clip from the movie musical “White Christmas” on a phone.

Overseeing the hubbub was Georgia Katinas, the general manager, who is 33 and straight. Her grandfather, George Katinas, the son of Greek immigrants, opened Annie’s in 1948 at a different location as the Paramount Steak House. Ms. Katinas says nobody in her family is gay, yet Annie’s surely is. That seed was planted by her great-aunt Annie Kaylor.

Annie was beyond supportive of the gay community and became, for many of the restaurant’s racially diverse diners, a mother figure before her death in 2013. In 2019, when Annie’s received an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation, the restaurant critic David Hagedorn wrote of how, in its early days, Annie “went up to two men holding hands under the table and told them they were welcome to hold hands above it.”

Now that indoor dining has resumed, Ms. Katinas said, “people are coming back with tears in their eyes” because they “missed being in a space where they’re not the only gay people.”

Derrin Andrade and Zack Sands weren’t looking for a gay restaurant when they moved to Dupont Circle four years ago. Now the biracial married couple are regulars at what Mr. Sands, 30, called “a home more than a restaurant.”

“You can sense the loyalty at Annie’s, and it makes you want to concede to that,” he said. “You want to be part of it when you see people are coming back for a reason.”

For Steve Herman, 79, who has eaten at Annie’s since 1976, that reason is the fact that Dupont Circle isn’t as gay as it once was.

“I think it’s a great thing that gay people are more mainstream and comfortable going other places,” he said. “But I miss having one neighborhood and one restaurant that was mine.”

Carla Perez-Gallardo, 33, never intended to create a queer destination when she and Hannah Black opened Lil’ Deb’s Oasis five years ago in Hudson, N.Y. But the restaurant, which serves what it calls “tropical comfort food,” has become a favorite among queer residents and visitors even though it doesn’t advertise, relying instead on word of mouth and social media.

“I happen to be queer, and it unfolded that way and it feels joyous,” said Mx. Perez-Gallardo, who with Ms. Black was a semifinalist for the 2019 James Beard award for Best Chef: Northeast.

The restaurant is set to reopen its dining room on Friday night after a six-month hiatus, serving sweet plantains, pork tamales and lamb skewers in a bright, playful space that Mx. Perez-Gallardo calls “campy and kitsch.” It sells shirts emblazoned with the words “Tasting Good” and “Tasting Gay.”

“If there’s a way food is queer, it’s in being non-homogenous, in being lateral and multiple,” Mx. Perez-Gallardo said. “That’s also fully definitive of our space and ethos.”

The historian George Chauncey traces gay eating places in New York City back to the cheap urban dining halls that catered to unmarried workers in the late 19th century. In the 1920s and ’30s, the police often raided cafeterias like Horn & Hardart, where gay men gathered to “ridicule the dominant culture that ridiculed them, and construct an alternative culture,” as Mr. Chauncey writes in his book “Gay New York.”

In 1959, 10 years before the Stonewall riots, what historians consider the first queer uprising in modern America broke out at Cooper Donuts in Los Angeles, where L.G.B.T.Q. people pushed back against a police roundup by using coffee and doughnuts as projectiles.

In the 1980s, Florent was a refuge for gay New Yorkers during the worst years of AIDS. The owner, Florent Morellet, recalled in a recent interview that after learning he was H.I.V.-positive in 1987, he posted his T-cell counts on repurposed menu boards that faced the dining room — a coded message of solidarity to his customers.

“I have met many times people who said, ‘Florent, you don’t know me, but at that time I was positive and in the closet and didn’t tell anybody,’” said Mr. Morellet, 67. “They said, ‘When I came to your restaurant where you put your T-cell numbers on the board, I felt everything was OK.” He tried to say more, but choked up.

In Green Bay, Wis., Napalese Lounge and Grille looks as gay as a cheese curd. When straight couples bring children to the unpretentious brick building for chicken tenders on weekends, the place feels more like an Applebee’s than the Mineshaft.

Now almost 40, Naps, as regulars call it, is the oldest gay bar and restaurant in Green Bay, according to Arnold Pendergast, 61, who has owned it with his husband, Stacy Desotel, 56, since 2012. It’s where L.G.B.T.Q. locals gather for charity drag shows and to watch Packers games over baskets of fat and crispy beer-battered cod because it’s one of the few gay options in town. (You don’t hear “queer” much in Green Bay.)

Mr. Pendergast, who goes by Butch, calls his place “a comfort.”

“The prices are reasonable, and you can grab a burger or play Donkey Kong or cribbage,” he said.

Martha, who asked that her surname not appear in this article because she’s not entirely out as transgender, used to drive to Chicago “to avoid violence by people who lack any understanding of what it means to be transgender.”

She now hosts a monthly get-together at Naps for trans people from the region who she said “desperately need to be safe.” She is part of a group working to bring a new outdoor mural to Naps this summer that will herald it as an L.G.B.T.Q. space.

Jeremiah Moss, the author of “Vanishing New York,” said restaurants like Naps counter the notion that queer people “don’t need spaces anymore because we have the internet.”

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that connecting digitally is not enough,” particularly for working-class gay people, he said, like those at Naps. “We need to be in spaces with each other because otherwise we don’t quite exist.”

If there’s a restaurant that points a way forward for queer dining, it’s Laziz Kitchen, in Salt Lake City. Moudi Sbeity founded the Mediterranean restaurant in 2017 with Derek Kitchen, then his husband, who was elected to the Utah State Senate a year later.

Mr. Sbeity, 33, prefers to call Laziz a queer, not gay, restaurant to signal “that we are inclusive in love.” The Pride flag flying outside is the redesigned version with stripes added for the trans community and people of color. The bathrooms are all-gender. A poster at the entrance welcomes refugees.

Not even red-state politics comes between a customer and Laziz’s grilled halloumi. “We’ve had plenty of people who support Trump and have worn Trump hats, and we don’t skip a beat in welcoming them in and offering them food and kindness,” said Mr. Sbeity, who grew up in Lebanon and moved to the United States in 2006.

Nan Seymour, a regular, swears by the hummus, beet and muhammara trio. She dines there often, sometimes with her trans daughter, and feels she should support the restaurant’s mission.

“The default in our current culture is cisnormative, heteronormative white supremacy, and it’s not safe for people who aren’t in those majority privileged groups,” said Ms. Seymour, her voice breaking. “It’s essential for us to know that we can be at a restaurant and not worry about how it will go for my daughter when she goes to the bathroom.”

Jen Jack Gieseking, an urban cultural geographer at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, said that like Laziz, future queer restaurants will be intersectional, especially about gender. Servers won’t assume pronouns. Men won’t necessarily be given the check.

“We’ll see more consideration for how to create an antiracism space,” said Mr. Gieseking, the author of “A Queer New York.” “People will consider who’s delivering your food and who made your food.”

“Not all of these restaurants will be great,” he added. “But they will be projects that make change, and that’s exciting.”


How Food Trucks Endured and Succeeded During the Pandemic


This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country have been affected by the pandemic.

The Covid pandemic hit California hard. It has seen well over 3.5 million cases and over 60,000 deaths. Scores of businesses have closed. But for Ana Jimenez, the owner of Tacos El Jerry, a small fleet of food trucks in Santa Cruz County, it provided an opportunity to bring her business into the 21st century.

Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks began taking orders through an app and a website, delivering directly to customers, and cultivating a customer base through a new social media presence. All of that added up to a significant increase in sales.

“Our business grew,” said Ms. Jimenez, 50. “We even added a new truck. Credit goes to my son, Jerry, who is 23. We didn’t have anything on social media. He said, ‘we’re going digital on all of this, Mom.’” Half of her orders are now placed online, she said.

Ms. Jimenez’s son created Facebook and Instagram pages for the food trucks and a social media advertising campaign, and the trucks began accepting credit card purchases. “Each truck is now serving around 300 people per day, which translates to roughly $5,000 in sales daily,” Ms. Jimenez said.

Food trucks — kitchens on wheels, essentially — are flexible by design and quickly became a substitute during the pandemic for customers who couldn’t dine indoors and coveted something different than their mainstream carryout options. That, in turn, has delivered a new client base to add on to an existing cadre of loyal followers. In a very real sense, food trucks are vehicles for equality in the post-pandemic world.

“While the pandemic has certainly hurt the majority of small businesses, it has also pushed many to be more innovative by looking for new revenue streams and ways to reach customers,” said Kimberly A. Eddleston, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University.

Like Ms. Jimenez, some businesses have “focused on ways to maintain their customer base by, for example, delivering products directly to customers,” Prof. Eddleston said. “While others have created products and services that attract new customers.”

Luke Cypher, 34, for instance, expanded the already eclectic selections at his Blue Sparrow food trucks in Pittsburgh, adding pizza, four-packs of local beer, gift cards and five-ounce bottles of housemade hot sauce.

Mr. Cypher’s main fare since he hit the streets in 2016 has been global street food. His menu carries a heavy Asian inspiration. There’s made-from-scratch kimchi on the menu daily. Dishes can include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger made with a ramen bun.

During the pandemic, Mr. Cypher’s business took a hit when 24 festivals and over a dozen weddings where he was booked were canceled. “I switched gears to keep things as lean as possible,” Mr. Cypher said.

He temporarily shut down a second food truck — a retrofitted 35-foot, 1956 Greyhound bus that he used for the big parties — and introduced a website to interact with his customers and an online ordering system for his smaller truck, which he usually parked at a neighborhood brewery.

“I switched the menu to focus on soups, noodles, burritos and pressed sandwiches, so that the things that we were handing our customers would make it home and still be a good experience after they opened up the bag and took it out,” he said.

And he began to make and sell pizza one day a week at the kitchen where he used to do his prep work for the trucks before the pandemic. (The pizza, too, has an international flair: a banh mi pie, for example, made with pork or tofu, miso garlic sauce, mozzarella, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro.)

Customers can order and pay online or by phone and schedule a time to pick up; they receive a text or an email when their order is ready.

The kitchen “was already in place, so we turned around and said, well, what can we offer our customers in this unknown time that would be comforting,” Mr. Cypher said. “We had a wood-fired oven there that we use for bread baking, but basically it wasn’t being utilized.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Cypher was serving roughly 1,500 customers a week from his food truck. A weekly festival on weekends, with 5,000 people stopping by the bus, of course, ramped up that number.

“The cool part is I was able to stay afloat because, unlike a restaurant with traditional seating, it was just myself, my sous-chef and his wife, who worked part-time,” he said. “We ended up serving roughly a hundred people a day, four or five days a week. So it wasn’t the numbers that we did before, but our lights were able to stay on because we had reduced a lot of costs that we had involved in running multiple rigs.”

Mr. Cypher, however, opted not to use delivery apps like Uber Eats or Grub Hub. “I don’t want to hand my food off to somebody else,” he said. “If we weren’t going to have the one-on-one conversations with our customers, we were at least going to give it to them directly.”

And like Tacos El Jerry, social media became a huge part of his marketing platform. “The pictures that we take and post on Instagram and Facebook let people feel like they’re a part of our truck family,” Mr. Cypher said.

“Food trucks were well-equipped to withstand pandemic restrictions, as they’re naturally to-go and socially distanced businesses,” said Luz Urrutia, chief executive of Accion Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit organization providing small-business owners with access to capital, networks and coaching. “Many food truck owners stepped forward to seize opportunity during a time of great uncertainty,” she said.

As Pittsburgh emerges from the pandemic, Mr. Cypher is adding a twist at his kitchen location. “We have licensing to offer beer on draft from our local breweries, so we’re going to have a small beer garden,” he said. “And that’s a revenue stream that we’re going to kind of lean into that we probably never would have done if not for Covid.”

In 2020, Mr. Cypher’s food trucks had $200,000 in gross sales, down about 40 percent from the previous year, he said. “But with the new offerings, more efficiency and only running one rig, we were actually able to net enough to keep the business moving forward,” he said. “This year we’re already up about 30 percent from where we were at last year at this time.”

For Ronicca Whaley, the chef behind the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based truck Shiso Crispy, timing was much tricker: she opened her first truck in November 2019, just a few months before the pandemic. And yet Ms. Whaley, 35, who offers handmade gyozas, bao buns and their signature dish, dirty rice, now has two trucks because of a strategy of regularly parking in certain neighborhoods and offering discounted and free meals outside a nearby Ronald McDonald House. (She added the second truck in January.)

One challenge: “The internet here is shoddy. And cellphone service in different areas out here just doesn’t work,” she said. “During the height of the pandemic, I was consistently losing two or more transactions at my point of sale every shift.”

Luckily, she was offered a special initiative for small business owners by Verizon Business: a year of complimentary connectivity and a 5G iPhone, as well as tools such as the Clover Flex point of sale program for touchless transactions. “It has digitally transformed my business,” Ms. Whaley said.

She also signed on to an app, called Best Food Trucks, that allows customers near her to pre-order once they know her location for the day.

“The inextricably connected stories of food trucks and Covid are a perfect microcosm of the undeniable reality that women, immigrants and people of color, historically relegated to the edges of the economy, are actually the foundation upon which the next economy must be built,” said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of “Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs.”

But the silver lining from the pandemic for some operators is more personal — including bringing families together. “I have a ton of wisdom about how to operate food trucks and cooking,” Ms. Jimenez said. “It’s the coming together of the generations that made the business stronger now and for the future.”