Michelle Vanderwalker, the co-owner of Queeny’s, Kingfisher and the soon-to-open QueenBurger, brings artistic expertise to her entrepreneurial operations
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Shades of rusty orange and mustard yellow swirl across the walls at Queeny’s on East Chapel Hill Street, and an olive green hue covers the area behind an arched concrete bar top. When Michelle Vanderwalker looks around the colorful layout, she sees memories from her youth peeking out from every corner, like a rotary phone in the dove-gray book nook beyond the far end of the bar, where built-in shelves and a fluffy feathered light fixture welcome readers. Then there’s the abstract mural that was inspired by her grandmother’s groovy bed sheets.
“I wanted [Queeny’s] to feel really comfortable and nostalgic,” Michelle says, “like maybe you walked into your house from childhood.”
Even Queeny’s logo – the first design element Michelle finished for the restaurant she co-owns with Sean Umstead – is a swirly, thick retro-style font that reminds her of baseball uniforms and playing catch with her brother and father. Stamped in a rainbow of bright pigments across coffee mugs that Michelle shapes by hand, the motif was also influenced by the old Pine State sign that hangs outside Liberty Warehouse next to Durham Central Park.
Michelle, in fact, creates most of the handmade dishes and drinkware used at the restaurant and at Kingfisher, the cocktail bar beneath Queeny’s that she and Sean also own together – a craft that follows a thread back to her formative years as well. “My aunt was a potter … and we always had a lot of her work around, so I was exposed to handmade pottery from an early age,” Michelle says. Her grandmother, too, was an artist – one who preferred printmaking, painting and collage.
Majoring in ceramics and photography at Ohio Wesleyan University fed Michelle’s appetite for those artistic disciplines, but didn’t keep her from dabbling in drawing and other mediums. “I loved having my hands in everything,” Michelle says.
Today, Michelle still has her fingers in many pies – managing bartenders; the interior and menu design, and marketing look of each restaurant; replenishing custom dishware as needed; homeschooling her two sons, Frederick, 15, and Theodore, 12; and often acting as a jack-of-all-trades, fixing whatever needs it. She even bartends once a week just to maintain those skills.
She’s also busy with preparations for building out the permanent location of their pandemic-era pop-up QueenBurger, which is slated to open at American Tobacco Campus in mid-May.
Her schedule rarely allows for it now, but every so often Michelle still finds time to fill orders for restaurants including Counting House, where the Falls Church, Virginia, native worked as a bartender after moving to Durham in 2010. Michelle first stocked their shelves with her pottery in 2015. Plates, bowls and mugs are fired at her studio in the two-and-a-half-car garage of her East Durham home. Michelle’s bespoke dishes at Queeny’s take on extra flair by way of neon splatter paint, which diners were invited to help create last summer.
Queeny’s vibrant theme reflects what Michelle learned many years ago in her grandmother’s home. “I would spend a lot of time at her house, just learning how to see color,” she says. “… The way you use color can really make you feel differently about the spaces you’re in. I often pull in inspiration and ideas from the natural world, which is something I [also] got from my grandmother.”
Kingfisher’s tiled bar top took Michelle the better part of five months to finish. Three thousand hexagonal tiles that she made by hand and assembled into a flowing pattern evoke the Eno River. The bar’s earthy tones are offset by pops of electric blue paint and plush maroon booths.
Michelle’s stylistic choices shift from one project to the next, hinging on how she wants her customers to feel. “I knew I wanted Queeny’s to be … more casual than Kingfisher,” Michelle says. “I really wanted [Queeny’s] to be a community space.” The horseshoe-shaped bar intentionally fosters that communal feeling. Open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., the flexible space has tables and seating that can be pushed aside to make way for a dance floor and to suit events like open-mic nights and the Great Durham Bake Off, a monthly baking competition. There’s also a podcasting room that’s free to book.
Michelle seems remarkably calm for an owner on the brink of opening the doors to a third unique concept. She’s good at taking her own advice, which she’d readily give to other restaurateurs or aspiring artists: “‘Don’t panic,’ that’s the first thing,” she says. “I say that to myself all the time.” Her demeanor might also be due to the level of detail she’s already spent months conceptualizing – years, really. Before Michelle and Sean opened Kingfisher in summer 2019, she says, they spent lots of time paring down the specific elements of restaurants they liked. They carefully chose the traits Kingfisher would cut its teeth on, like sourcing from small, local farms via their distributor, Happy Dirt, to make “ground-to-glass” cocktails that accentuate distinctive ingredients including red beets and prickly pear juice.
Drawing on Michelle’s deeply ingrained artistic compass to tie together the design seemed only fitting. “[To] really think about … the aesthetics of the whole experience and how much that affects people’s dining experience is really important,” Michelle says. “It was kind of a natural fit to put the two together, and I’m really happy to be making art for public spaces for other people to experience.”