Durham Magazine isn’t the only local company marking a decade and a half in business this year
By James Dupree | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Durham Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Geoff Durham said it best: “Durham [has been] a great place to do business for a long time. … [It’s] home to a variety of sectors that are succeeding, growing, innovating and supporting one another.” In spite of the past few years of hardship, our city’s independent business climate is flourishing. For this special anniversary issue, we wanted to check in with a few other enterprises that also turn 15 this year, from a favorite Italian restaurant in the heart of downtown, to one of the top performing arts organizations in the country.
The Lather Lounge salon sits in an unassuming white building near the corner of Hillsborough Road and Lawndale Avenue. Founder Maggie Lewis, born and bred in Durham, has had an interest in hair styling since she was a child. As a teenager, she worked as an assistant to hairstylist Miko Pierson – who now works at Salon Lofts downtown – before enrolling at Carolina Beauty College in 2008. She completed her education that same year, and shortly after, Lewis’ husband, Kazlo Lewis, and her father, Sylvester Smith, encouraged her to open her own salon. In order to stay close to her roots, Lewis launched in Durham. The best part about working in her hometown, Lewis said, is “I get to see my work flowing, growing and blowing [around the] Bull City.”
The Lather Lounge has steadily grown from Day One, and Lewis’ client list includes members from local and national news and radio stations to one of her most famous clients, Loretta Lynch, our country’s first female African American attorney general. “It was great,” Lewis said. “[Lynch] had Secret Service with her each time. I’ve been her cosmetologist for years now.”
Salons and barbershops across the country suffered through the pandemic, but Lewis was quick to overcome the odds. “I adapted right away with no problem,” she said. “Time management and cleanliness were already in place. All I had to do was add masks and Lysol.” Lewis still offers one-on-one appointments and virtual consultations to clients who prefer to limit contact with others. Her keys to success, Lewis said, are “communication, confidence and character. Set goals, brand your business and don’t give up.”
GREEN MEETS GLAM
Founded by Ryan Hurley and Nadira Hurley, downtown boutique Vert & Vogue promotes clothing made using ethically sourced natural fabrics from independent designers.
At the tail end of 2001, while living in London and working in the trade publishing industry, Ryan made a weekend trip to Paris to visit the Musée Picasso. But he never made it, as he first walked into a men’s clothing store where Nadira emerged from behind a curtain, and within moments had Ryan trying on clothes. Nadira says she was not one for dating clients, but after a few more visits to the store and with a little charm, Ryan convinced her to go on a first date. Sparks flew, and a little less than a year later, the two were married and living in New Jersey.
In 2007, the couple found themselves yearning for something more. “I came from a long line of small business owners, and I wanted to have my own business,” Ryan said. “At the same time, Nadira had reinspired my love of clothing and style. We also discovered some designers who were dedicated to creating collections that were more sustainable.” While trying to find a way to bring their idea of an environmentally friendly boutique into reality, the couple visited Durham, a city talked about highly in their circle of friends. “We just fell in love with the culture, the diversity, the entrepreneurial environment and its legacy,” Ryan said. “The food scene really captivated us, and we thought that, if people had this kind of palate for food, then maybe they would appreciate new styles of clothing as well.” They opened their boutique in 2008 in Brightleaf Square, where they stayed for seven years before moving to Five Points in early 2015. “We made the move both for the opportunity to own our storefront and use the third floor of the building for our e-commerce operations as well as for more visibility in the city center,” he said.
The Hurleys have maintained superior products over the past 15 years, but their biggest challenge had always been a lack of daytime traffic. “The whole revitalization has been driven by Friday and Saturday night experiences with food and the performing arts,” Ryan said. “Current retail is more spread out. Retail is all energy, emotion and people. So when we are standing on our own, we have to go head over heels to create that experience to grab clientele.”
Over the years, the couple has proved they have the skills to create that sought-after vitality and intrigue. Some of their events invite clientele to meet popular independent designers – such as Amy Smilovic, founder and creative director of womenswear clothing line Tibi – who are often made available for personal styling appointments. In a similar fashion, Vert & Vogue’s “Happy Hour” series hosts regional luminaries who give talks on a variety of subjects. Past guests have included Grammy-nominated musician Tift Merritt and awardwinning Durham chef Matt Kelly. “Vivian Howard will be a special guest for our Happy Hour in May,” Ryan said.
Vert & Vogue found ways to keep going even amid the pandemic, when the store’s momentum could have easily halted. “We developed personal styling appointments since we could only have one person in the store at a time,” Ryan said. For clients who couldn’t shop in person, virtual appointments were available, coupled with personally curated apparel boxes shipped to customers. “Those services have been really successful for us,” he said.
“[We’ve] always been struck by the way people show up – for their friends, family and community as a whole,” Nadira said. “Everyone, from our customers to fellow entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, is so generous with their time, always supporting one another and small businesses.” Vert & Vogue was officially given its B Corporation certification in 2018 for meeting the highest standards of performance on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials. “We’ve taken cues from our neighbors, bringing great, personal service to each aspect of our business,” Nadira said. “Honest feedback and clear communication are integral, and I’m proud of growing an environment in which our customers and [our staff] feel safe to truly express ourselves.”
A TOAST TO SUCCESS
A few doors down from Vert & Vogue on West Main Street is Italian sandwich shop Toast, a local favorite. Owners Kelli Cotter and Billy Cotter have worked in restaurants since their teenage years and knew they wanted to open their own restaurant. Steering away from the fine dining scene that made up most of their work experience, the two aspiring entrepreneurs had a taste for something more casual. “We wanted a place where everyone could go rather than someplace reserved for special occasions,” Kelli said.
The Cotters wanted to join the revitalization of Durham’s downtown but struggled to find a place that met their specifications while also being affordable. “There were no spaces with a hood system available, and [to install that system] was out of our budget,” Kelli said. So, they compromised. The couple chose to narrow down their menu options to Italian sandwiches and soups, thereby eliminating the need for a hood system, and found the ideal location to open up shop. Billy, the chef, ensures freshness by using locally sourced ingredients from farmers, bakers and other vendors. Toast has enjoyed numerous accolades, including being named one of the best sandwiches in the Bull City for all 12 years of Durham Magazine’s “Best of Durham” poll.
The biggest challenge for the Cotters came, unsurprisingly, with the pandemic. No one was dining out, and the pair had to adapt. “We didn’t even have online ordering before the pandemic,” Kelli said. “We didn’t have much in the way of delivery services either.” With the help of Billy’s sister, Marny Ruben, they set up local neighborhood deliveries, notifying folks living in those areas via email, once a week for 16 months. “I don’t know if people wanted to eat our food that often, but I think some people just wanted to support us,” Billy said. Today, a majority of Toast’s business is now through online pickup orders. “It’s a big change, but it means we can also handle a lot more,” Kelli said. “We used to seat 40 people. Now we seat 24. We’ve limited what we can do in dine-in services because we can do so much more in takeout.”
It’s not only the customers championing this small sandwich shop, but also others in the industry. “The community in the local restaurant businesses all talk to one another and share resources,” Kelli said. “We don’t feel that harsh competitiveness. When new places open up, it keeps people in the area. Especially new independent owners.”
Looking to the future of Toast, “we never set up an exit strategy,” Kelli said. “We hope [business] continues to grow and that downtown keeps the independent owners and startups around. If that continues, then we will stay forever.”
BROADWAY IN OUR BACKYARD
The Durham Performing Arts Center welcomes close to 550,000 guests each year to its more than 200 individual performances offered throughout the season, which range from hit Broadway musicals to concerts, comedy shows and special events. DPAC has been listed as a top-performing arts organization in the region and annually ranks as one of the top five theaters in the United States. DPAC has been named one of the best performing arts venue in our annual “Best of Durham” poll since it began in 2011, and ranked as the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 theater in the U.S. in 2022 inVenuesNow, Billboard Magazine and Pollstar, respectively.
The idea for DPAC originated between 2003 and 2004, initially conceptualized as a home for American Dance Festival events during Capitol Broadcasting redevelopment of the American Tobacco Campus. Construction of the arts center started in 2007 with an approximate cost of $46 million, and DPAC officially opened its doors in November 2008.
Early into development, concerns grew around whether Durham could support a 2,700-seat performance center, especially during a recession. More importantly, would it disrupt the city’s other treasured venue on the opposite side of Main Street, the Carolina Theatre? Worries quieted as the Carolina Theatre saw growth of more than $1 million in annual revenue over the first few years after DPAC’s opening. Meanwhile, DPAC’s first-year ticket sales tripled that of projections, with soldout shows featuring musicians B.B. King and Harry Connick Jr., and comedian Lewis Black, to name a few.
Fifteen years after its opening, DPAC has grown significantly from its original 32 shows and four weeks of Broadway performances a year. Owned by the City of Durham, DPAC’s operations are under the direction of Nederlander Organization (a New York-based company and owner of nine theaters in New York City) and Professional Facilities Management, allowing DPAC access to some of the most popular Broadway performances in the country. Its top-grossing shows included three-week stints of “Hamilton” and “Frozen;” the biggest showing goes to “The Lion King” in February 2016, with 40 performances and a total of 100,000 guests across its five-week run.
Again challenges arose in early 2020 when the pandemic forced DPAC to close its doors for almost a year and a half. During that time the center went through safety improvements, including a new GPS Air purification system that filters indoor air and is “400% more effective in capturing airborne particles,” according to DPAC’s website. Once restrictions on gatherings eased, DPAC reopened in August 2021 with a performance by English pop band Squeeze. Even with its own potentially audience-limiting precautions in place, including mask and vaccination requirements, the performing arts center had another successful season that drew more than 450,000 attendees.
With most requirements now lifted, and with DPAC projected to again host more than 200 performances – including the premiere of two of Broadway’s biggest hits, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Six” – in 2023, it’s safe to say that the show went on and, indeed, seems it will for many years to come.