Bull City businesses in the hospitality, retail and restaurant sectors rev up for a bustling winter season
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
This year’s holiday outlook is merry and bright for shop and restaurant owners, particularly since the Bull City caught the attention of The New York Times as a “diverse cultural and culinary destination.” Durham was featured on Nov. 2, 2023, in the newspaper’s travel column that highlights things to do and see when an out-of-towner has only 36 hours to check out an area.
Visitors to Durham spent more than $1 billion in 2022, up 31% over 2021 and the second highest year-over-year growth rate in the state, according to Discover Durham’s tourism impact report for fiscal year 2023. The state and local tax impact amounted to nearly $72 million.
Durham’s hospitality jobs grew 21% to more than 7,000 workers, which was the state’s largest increase. This job growth was spurred, in part, by a rise in new business openings and expanded restaurant hours, though many establishments have not returned to pre-pandemic schedules. Still, demand for more workers is high for the restaurant and hotel sectors.
Nearly 60% of out-of-town visitors come to reunite with family and friends during the holidays, said Discover Durham President and CEO Susan Amey. “There’s nothing like hosting your family and seeing the joy grandkids experience during the holidays,” she said.
Travel patterns and visitor spending continue to shift post-pandemic, but the most recent visitor impact data shows the county’s lodging occupancy rate is up 4% compared to this time last year. “We’re encouraged, and expect to continue seeing this year-over-year growth during this holiday season,” Amey said.
However, colder weather can slow travel and tourism rates, which can impact surrounding retail and hospitality businesses. “That’s important to mention, considering retail and food and beverage accounted for more than half of visitor spending in 2022,” Amey added.
Last December attracted more than half a million unique visitors to seven different downtown districts, according to a monthly report assembled by Tiffany Bashore, business engagement director for Downtown Durham Inc. There were 787,000 visitors to downtown last year between Thanksgiving and the end of December – a 10% increase over 2021. She said there have been 9.8 million visitors to the area so far this year, and could match the pre-COVID visitor number of 10.5 million by year’s end.
Gina Rozier, DDI’s marketing and communication director, said the outdoor tree lighting event on Dec. 2, 2023, at CCB Plaza is expected to bring thousands downtown with a talented lineup of Durham musicians and performers. City council members unanimously approved the creation of The Bullpen, Durham’s first social district, in October 2022, and it kicked off just a couple days before the tree lighting last December; businesses adjacent to CCB Plaza ended up running out of Bullpen cups – which allow people to responsibly drink beer, wine or cocktails purchased from participating bars and restaurants as they walk through downtown – during the event.
Starting Jan. 9, 2024, DDI will also host the third annual Downtown Durham Feast, a monthlong campaign that encourages customers to dine downtown and submit a copy of their receipts for a chance to win weekly prizes, including goodies from downtown retailers, a $100 SpendaBull gift card and a night’s stay in a downtown hotel. DDI also plans to boost the marketing of its SpendaBull e-gift card program that began in 2019 this holiday season. Since its inception, customers have bought nearly $150,000 worth of gift cards, which are exclusively redeemable at participating downtown merchants.
The Giving Season
“Once there’s a hint of fall, the holiday shopping begins,” said Lauren Elmore, owner of Mode Consignment, which began preparing for the season in late summer. “It’s definitely a busier time of year,” she said. “People are excited to come look for a fun cocktail dress, cute little clutches, heels or jewelry to match outfits for parties.”
The shop has built a loyal following over the past 13 years. “We love seeing our return customers from out of town,” she said. “Lots of mothers and daughters or sisters make it a tradition to always visit Mode when they are back in [Durham].” Elmore said sales are up from last year at both her Raleigh and Durham locations where consignment sales are heavily dependent on brick-and-mortar shoppers.
Event-driven experiences with lifestyle and accessories designers at Vert & Vogue also make for meaningful holiday gifts. “Our mother/daughter styling appointments are the most memorable experience we offer during this time,” said Vert & Vogue co-founder Ryan Hurley. “It’s a unique and fun opportunity for mothers and daughters to connect and celebrate the season together. Last year, one of our clients who lives out of town and visits often bought a [curated] box for each of her three daughters. They opened them together during the holidays – [it] was a huge hit.”
Hurley said sales are strong this year despite lower rates of foot traffic during daytime shopping hours downtown. He said focusing on customer experience has become critical for the shop’s growth. “We expect to have a brisk holiday season,” he said. “Our business has evolved into personal styling, which includes our appointment experiences. Our bookings have grown significantly.”
Custom jewelers also rely on private appointments to connect with their customers. “The shopping experience is another reason why we stick with the appointments; [it] allows us to give each client their time,” said Jewelsmith President Kristine Wylie. This holiday season, though, the storefront will be open every day with extended hours and no appointments required during the month of December to encourage shoppers in search of meaningful – and sometimes lifechanging – gifts. “Having been in business for 20-plus years, we have lots of amazing regulars, and we are also meeting many newcomers, especially for engagement rings and wedding bands,” Wylie said, noting that 2022 was a good year for the company’s sales, and 2023 is shaping up similarly well.
The employees of Hamilton Hill Jewelry in Brightleaf Square look forward to the bustling weeks of December when they greet returning clients, meet new ones and wrap beautiful gifts.
Hamilton Hill co-owner Sarah Hill said the holiday season is a major part of her business, “but I’m happy to say we are nicely busy all year long. Brief lulls come and go, but engagements, birthdays, anniversaries and gifts to self never fade.” She said the store serves many long-distance clients who make purchases by phone, e-commerce or email, which turns the back room into Santa’s shipping department.
Hill said the shop’s Christmas Eve shoppers are particularly fun, with some families or groups making an annual outing to the store. “There are lots of wonderful and sometimes silly tales on the holiday shopping front,” she said. “One in particular is when a husband was shopping for his wife and she, shopping for him, ran into each other at Hamilton Hill. They were able to have a laugh about it and then neither had to have the challenge of choosing a surprise gift. We did wrap the gifts though, and I’m told they went under the tree nonetheless.”
At Letters Bookshop on West Main Street, owner Land Arnold said the store will open on Mondays during the holiday season and is open 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. on most days. “The busier a bookstore gets, the better it feels, and the more fun it is for the people working there,” Arnold said.
Letters Bookshop celebrates its 10th anniversary this year in the downtown district and hopes more retail businesses will fill nearby empty storefronts. “I think we need to support not just startup tech entrepreneurship; we need retail,” he said.
Over on Ninth Street, shop owner Barbara Stover is re-configuring the layout of Hometown Apparel because the 1,800-square-foot store is packed with merchandise and seasonal inventory. “I tell people when they come in the store, ‘You need to take a couple laps around just to take it all in,’” she said, and added that it is now open seven days a week to feature products made by 40 different vendors based in Durham and other locations across North Carolina. And, every item is also available online through their website.
“We’re very proud of getting everything cataloged,” Stover said. “I mean, it was exhausting, but we are so thankful because now we’re seeing people are ordering from everywhere, not only the United States, but globally. People come to Durham, and it makes an impact on them. And they want to bring it home with them, but they don’t necessarily have room in their luggage, or they forgot an item, or they want to send it to a loved one.”
Stover said she trains her seasonal employees – she plans to hire three part-time staff who she hopes will stay on after the holidays – about every product’s backstory. “We really find that helps the customer,” she said, adding that she encourages her workers to actively connect with visitors. “That way when they leave, they’re wanting to come back.”
The hospitality industry is growing across the state, said Lynn Minges, president of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We’re only just now surpassing 2019 employment numbers,” Minges said. “But that’s not the whole story – North Carolina is growing, and that means more people, more businesses and ultimately more competition. The whole hospitality industry is feeling this shift and the need for more workers.”
Minges said a new statewide marketing recruitment campaign, Serving Careers, promotes the opportunities that exist within the industry to help attract and retain employees in restaurants, bars, hotels and motels across the state. Funded by a $5 million grant from North Carolina’s portion of the American Rescue Plan, the plan highlights the valuable skills that can be learned working in the hospitality industry and the diverse career paths available. According to the NCRLA job board, there are nearly 2,000 hospitality-related positions open in Durham.
NanaSteak co-owner Brad Weddington likened launching his new restaurant – Seraphine – to having a baby. “We’re still in the phase when you say ‘weeks,’” he said. Brad and his brother, Graham Weddington, own both restaurants. “For Seraphine, we’re still figuring out our day-to-day, so thinking about stuff in the future, we’ve got some ideas, especially being in American Tobacco Campus – it’s so pretty, [and] they do the tower lighting and all [during the holidays].”
Brad said this is the busiest time of the year for the restaurant industry in general and added that NanaSteak is typically booked for holiday parties five or six months in advance. He said his restaurants are typically always hiring due to the need to maintain a high level of staffing, but that most employees brought on during this lively season end up staying on board.
“I think what’s going to be cool is being [part] of the [downtown] social district … especially when they do the tower lighting,” Brad adds. “[The city] invests a lot in the holiday season down here. We feel very fortunate always to be a part of these things. This really shows how special it is for us to be so close to Durham Performing Arts Center and to create that kind of experience for people. It’s something that we really try not to take for granted. It really just means a lot for people to want to celebrate with us.”