After 20 years at the forefront of Durham’s restaurant scene, Charlie Deal knows how to ‘find a way’
By Dan Shannon | Photography by Sarah Martin, Fancy This Photography
The owner/partner of JuJu, Dos Perros and Chapel Hill’s JuJube, Charlie Deal has strained his instinct for improvisation the past 18 months, like every other restaurant owner. He also faced an unexpected body-blow medical diagnosis in late 2018 – Parkinson’s disease. “[It] presents a set of new challenges and limits my effectiveness in the restaurants,” Charlie says. “So there have been some role changes, which have led me to spend less time at the restaurants during peak service because I simply can’t handle the stress and, quite frankly, I don’t want to be slow and in the way. Fortunately, there’s still plenty for me to do behind the scenes.”
Following are edited excerpts of a conversation with Durham Magazine’s Dan Shannon, conducted over the past summer when things looked like they were getting much better, but then, maybe not so much better or maybe not quite so fast.
Where to begin. How have you gotten through this?
We, and plenty of other restaurants and caterers, were [initially] given a lifeline thanks to Linden Thayer [of the nutrition research organization Food Insight Group] and her group Durham FEAST that paid us to provide breakfasts and lunches for kids who were no longer getting free meals at school during the shutdown. It allowed us to keep the lights on and keep some of our staff on the payroll. Now, obviously, things like that are not going to stick around for us, but other adjustments will. Basically we pivoted all year.
Any positive changes as a result of pivoting?
Our point-of-sale partner, Toast, has been great and has helped make online ordering a reality. Also, I think every [restaurateur] is coming out of this with a heightened awareness of sanitation. If being more careful prevents us from catching the cold or flu, all the better. Frankly, I hope people don’t throw their masks away when this is over and use them the way some other countries do and wear them when you’ve got a bug but still need to get out in public. I mean, we’ve gotten used to them now.
Your takeaway on the takeout option?
In simple terms, most of us who weren’t specifically geared toward takeout used to just do it over the phone because it didn’t amount to a big enough portion of our business to [do more] with it. But most, if not all, of us started doing a significant amount of takeout, and it’s so much easier to have it online. I’m also guessing that some customers prefer it as well. It will stick around.
But dining in is really what you do.
Yes, most restaurants are geared toward a dine-in experience. I mean, let’s be honest here. The food being served at most of the restaurants does not benefit from being put in a box for about a half an hour before being eaten, quite possibly, from the same box. A $25 entree doesn’t look much like a $25 entree when you put it in a box. And I expect that most people, once they have the confidence to eat out, will go back to that.
Now about staffing…
We’re scrambling like everyone else is. We’re certainly offering more money than we used to, but unless everyone is ready for a complete paradigm shift in terms of menu pricing, we can only go so far. After all, our industry survives on pretty small margins to begin with. The federal PPP money has certainly helped subsidize higher wages, but it’s not going to last forever.
Related to tight staffing, how are customers reacting?
There are always going to be some tough customers, but people as a whole seem to get it. I mean, this isn’t a blanket excuse for doing our jobs poorly, but I see a lot of discussions on food groups on Facebook and such, and people are rooting for restaurants and preaching patience. And from what I can see, patience is carrying the day.
I’ve noticed a trend toward simplified menus.
More limited offerings may actually be a good thing. Having a very large menu can be intellectually lazy because it avoids the harder conversations of, “What do I truly do well?” and “How many different things can I do well at the same time?” Some of the most revered and long-standing places around are known for one thing, like Merritt’s BLT. So, yes, chasing down product and leaner staffs may have pushed places to tighten up their menus, but they’re likely better off for having done that. The restaurant likely becomes more profitable without having to raise prices or sacrifice quality, and the diner gets a better meal.
What’s the next big restaurant challenge?
We’re all being forced to get creative behind the scenes, as in maintaining quality at a decent price point in the face of rising food costs. But that’s not very sexy, is it? That said, some of the best ideas are born from times like this, when you’re faced with real challenges. If I had to guess, I would think that people will find inspiration in simplicity. Kitchens can’t rely on super labor-intensive cuisines because, well, there’s not enough labor to drive that sort of thing. So you have to make something else, something simpler. Nothing wrong with that.
Is there a big lesson from the past 18 months?
Yes. We’ll find a way. There’s always a way.