Elizabeth Turnbull Stepped Up to Help Fellow Restaurant Owners During the Pandemic

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Elizabeth Turnbull used her talents as the co-owner/bar director at COPA and senior editor/partner at Light Messages Publishing to speak up for the struggling food and beverage industry

Elizabeth Turnbull
Photo by John Michael Simpson

By Hannah Lee

Elizabeth Turnbull gazed intently at the floor of handmade Cuban tiles. The colors – rich reds, creamy blues and golden yellows – called her back to early 2018, when she and husband Roberto Copa opened their farm-to-table Cuban restaurant, COPA. But staring at those tiles on March 13, 2020, Elizabeth didn’t feel the same wonder from when she installed them. She was dismayed, devastated at the thought that, for weeks on end, no customers would step across them.

She was on a conference call that same day with Mayor Steve Schewel and practically the entire Durham restaurant industry, joining the chorus of local leaders unanimously deciding to shut down.

“Suddenly, you don’t have anything to do,” she says. “What do you do?”

The uncertainty that lay ahead didn’t deter Elizabeth from facing the crisis. She frequently attended city rondtable meetings and became the unofficial cofounder of the Durham Restaurant Coalition alongside Beyu Group President Dorian Bolden. Together they proposed solutions including outdoor dining. She wrote a letter to Indy Week calling on residents and city/state officials to take action, provide funds … anything. “Everybody saw the letter from Elizabeth,” Susan Amey told Durham Magazine back in July. “She’s been very active and engaged.”

“I felt like somebody had to speak up and ask for help,” Elizabeth says. “In small businesses, sometimes people are hesitant to do that because they don’t want to upset the wrong people. They don’t want to put a target on their back, or they don’t know quite what to say or how to say it. Not everybody likes to write. And I felt like I have the skill set.”

Elizabeth entered the restaurant industry when she and Roberto opened the now-shuttered sandwich shop Old Havana in January 2011. The Wake Forest University journalism grad had no culinary experience whatsoever. Roberto was a biochemist. It was a dream jokingly brought up over tacos at Taqueria La Vaquita.

More than a decade later, Elizabeth has continuously made an effort – whether it’s been through food, service or the written word – to add to the city she calls home.

As pandemic restrictions slowly lift, helping those affected remains important and necessary. COPA continues to feed the hungry at the Durham Community Food Pantry through its 50 Meals a Day program, which started in July and also helps provide COPA staff with living wages. COPA puts $1 per meal delivered into an escrow fund to give out small grants to local farms to better meet the needs of the community. “We expect to give the first grants before the end of the year,” Elizabeth says.

Elizabeth also juggles a second full-time job as senior editor and partner at her family’s business, Light Messages Publishing, where she manages 12 projects on any given day. She’s published two children’s books and a biography so far. A third children’s book, “Janjak and Freda Go to the Citadel,” is slated for release later this year.

The two jobs complement each other surprisingly well, making it more cohesive for Elizabeth to develop her symbiotic talents. It also helps that she’s her own boss, which gives her flexibility to champion a broader objective.

“Our advocacy work as a restaurant coalition isn’t over yet,” Elizabeth says. “Our recovery path is really long. We’re still working. We’re not giving up yet. … I haven’t quite stood on the corner of the street banging a book or pot and pan yet, but I won’t say it’s out of the realm of possibility.”

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.

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