American Tobacco Campus is an integral part of the Bull City and a destination for thousands of visitors each year
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Take a look at a postcard of Durham, and you’re likely to find a few iconic sights – Duke Chapel, the Old Bull tobacco sign and, very likely, the Lucky Strike Water Tower at American Tobacco Campus. The development is an integral part of the Bull City and a destination for thousands of visitors each year.
ATC’s restaurants are iconic in their own right, with NanaSteak serving hungry patrons of the Durham Performing Arts Center (best place for live music, according to our readers) and local diners alike, Tobacco Road Sports Cafe offering one of the city’s premiere sports bar experiences, and the much-beloved and recently relocated Parker & Otis (in a space developed by best commercial builder BridgePoint General Contracting) sharing its equally beloved deli fare down by the ATC river.
And a new slew of eateries have either recently opened in American Tobacco or announced plans to do so. Puerto Rican-meets-Southern-fare food truck Boricua Soul found its brick-and-mortar home in 2019 across from where Tyler’s Taproom was (which Parker & Otis has occupied since early 2021); Press Coffee, Crepes and Cocktails opened its doors on Blackwell Street near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park last summer; and NanaSteak, QueenBurger and Zweli’s Kitchen & Restaurant are also adding their new concepts to the campus. With American Tobacco Campus poised to expand even further – a 700,000-square-foot mixed-use project on 11 acres of the former University Ford site is slated to include a 14-story high-rise residential building and 90,000 square feet of experiential retail, to be completed in 2024 – and solidify its claim as one of Durham’s premier dining destinations, we wanted to find out what made it such an attractive place to open a restaurant. So, we started making a few calls.
Surprisingly, (or perhaps not, if you’re familiar with the Goodmon family and Capitol Broadcasting Co., which owns ATC) the No. 1 answer we got was “the landlords.”
“What drew us to do something else [at ATC] is our relationship with the landlords,” says Brad Weddington, co-owner of NanaSteak. “They have been wonderful.”
Brad and his brother, Graham Weddington, will open Seraphine later this year in the remaining portion of the former Tyler’s Taproom space shared with Parker & Otis. Seraphine will be a completely separate restaurant encompassing what was formerly the back bar and side patio of the taproom. The restaurant will be an ode to the family’s Louisiana heritage – think roasted oysters and cocktails made with barrel-aged whiskey – and feature an extensive patio that will serve as a gateway to the aforementioned future American Tobacco expansion.
Boricua Soul’s Toriano Fredericks had no immediate plans of settling into a brick-and-mortar when he was invited to participate in a monthlong pop-up at American Tobacco, but within the first week, ATC management approached him about making the move a permanent one.
“During the whole process, from before we opened, it really felt more like a partnership than a landlord-renter relationship,” Toriano says.
That close relationship proved to be vital during the pandemic, when many restaurants were forced to shutter because they couldn’t pay rent.
“Michael Goodmon came in and sat down with us right as we shut down and helped us develop a plan,” Brad recalls. “He told us not to worry about his side of things, but to focus on the longevity of NanaSteak.
“It was so intense and scary. I had my house on the line for NanaSteak. To have landlords be as supportive as they were, it was incredible and really helped ease some of that stress,” he adds.
Toriano had a similar experience. Boricua Soul had only been in operation a few months before COVID-19 sent our community into lockdown. “They understood where we were in this life cycleof still learning [how to run a restaurant],” he remembers. “They wanted to see us succeed and make it through.”
Not only did American Tobacco Campus offer Toriano significant rent abatement, but Adam Klein, director at American Tobacco Campus and American Underground, personally connected Toriano and his wife and Boricua Soul co-owner, Serena Fredericks, to Live Oak Bank (which has an office at American Underground) to process Boricua’s PPP loan.
“I’m really proud of our team for the time we took during the pandemic to support our local operators,” Adam says. “We start from the perspective that they are our partners. I know you hear developers say that a lot, and sometimes it rings hollow, but for us they really are.”
Adam and his team hosted webinars and info sessions on pandemic-related aid, reached out personally to the restaurants on site and made a conscious effort to focus on outdoor dining at American Tobacco Campus.
That emphasis on patio space continues, and it’s a huge draw within the entire campus for both guests and businesses. Wandering through the restored factory spaces with their soaring ceilings, art installations and historical markers of what life was like as an American Tobacco Company worker is like stepping back in time. Relaxing with a picnic or book beside the bubbling stream that runs through the center of the campus offers a unique Durham experience.
“You have all of this unique food, but you also have the beautiful scenery,” says Leonardo Williams, Durham City Council member and co-owner of Zweli’s with his wife, Zweli Williams. The pair are working on a new restaurant, Zweli’s Ekhaya – slated to open in late fall in the former Saladelia space inside the Crowe Building – that highlights an eclectic offering of southern African fusion cuisine. It will also feature accordion- style doors similar to what is installed at Boricua Soul.
“It’s a beautiful campus, it’s a historic place,”Toriano says. “When we did the pop-up I remember walking down Blackwell Street and thinking, ‘Wow, it’s going to be really cool to work here.’”
Brad agrees. “It’s so unique to have something that beautiful,” he says. “They’ve done such a good job taking care of the area.”
Dining options and programming were more focused on the campus’ office workers prior to the pandemic, but Adam notes that all of the improvements ATC staff made to the space – including new lighting (with multiple color options for thematic illumination of events) in the area between Parker & Otis and Boricua Soul, which is now called The Patio, and the prevalence of more outdoor dining options – creates a vibrant, buzzing campus long after the workday ends.
“One of the big moves we’ve made over the past year is to have tenants who are active well into the evening,” Adam explains. “[And] to be a dining destination, whether you’re going to DPAC or a Bulls game or not.”
Adam gives Boricua Soul as an example of what he hopes to see and hear throughout the campus in the future. “Boricua does this so well,” he says. “If you go to see them on a Sunday afternoon, they’ve got jazz playing, they’ve got great food and drinks.” It’s his hope that with all the new, locally owned restaurants opening, patrons will be more tempted to make the short walk over the train tracks from downtown to shop, dine and play.
Those who do venture over will have a number of new options in the coming months. In addition to Seraphine from the Weddingtons and Zweli’s Ekhaya from Leonardo and Zweli, popular pandemic pop-up QueenBurger (from the team behind Queeny’s and Kingfisher) will find a permanent home in the former Only Burger site along Blackwell Street, looking to open sometime in July. One of this year’s best commercial builders, Gateway Building Company, is working on all three of those projects – its handiwork can already be seen in the Boricua Soul and NanaSteak spaces.
Raleigh’s Five Star Restaurant is also slated to join in the delicious fun and open at ATC in July. Moving forward, Adam insists that he and his leasing team will focus almost exclusively on recruiting local dining concepts.
“We’re as homegrown as they come,” he says. “It’s very much a cultural hub for the community. It’s only fitting that our restaurants reflect that local heartbeat that Durham is known for.”
Perhaps that is ATC’s true secret to success – for all the gorgeous landscaping and beautifully restored spaces, the campus is first and foremost by Durham, for Durham. And here in the Bull City, we celebrate and support our own. Which is why I’m sure I’ll see you under the water tower sometime this summer!
The American Tobacco district’s Best of Durham Awards:
Angus Barn (Bay 7) – Best Full-Service Catering
Bella Trio Studio – Best Spa
Boricua Soul – Best Latin/Caribbean Food; Best Food Truck
Durham Performing Arts Center – Best Venue for Live Music (Large)
NanaSteak – Best Overall Restaurant, Best Place for Date Night; Best Wine Selection at a Restaurant
Parker & Otis – Best Sandwiches; Best Gift Shop
Press Coffee, Crepes and Cocktails – Best Breakfast/ Brunch; Best New Restaurant
The winning legacy is sure to continue with ATC expansions from other Best of Durham award recipients, including Queeny’s (Best Place for Late Night)/Kingfisher (Best Cocktails), Zweli’s Kitchen & Restaurant (Best Restaurant Catering) and NanaSteak.