This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.

The Triangle is booming.

From residential to commercial to industrial, nearly every sector across the area is experiencing widespread growth. While that growth brings more opportunities, it can also make it more difficult for young entrepreneurs to get their start.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, that difficulty has been exacerbated.

In Chapel Hill, an established restaurant owner has taken the challenges of the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink her impact on the community and beyond.

“For those of us who are more lucky and privileged, COVID created a lot of new possibilities to be thinking about business outside of the day-to-day grind of business, and more broadly and creatively about equity issues. Why are we in business? What is this business for?” said Andrea Reusing, owner of Chapel Hill restaurant Lantern and a James Beard award nominee. “Lantern hasn’t really been like a business enterprise for us, but more of a community exploration in a lot of ways.”

As part of Lantern’s 20th anniversary last year, Reusing and her team decided to go through the process of creating a 501(c) nonprofit that will be an owner of the restaurant. Before COVID, they had also started to work with an entity called Zero Footprint, which crowd-funds grants for farmers and helps them implement more renewable and regenerative farming tactics.

For Reusing, this is just one of many ways restaurants can get involved. On a more local level, Reusing also works with Vera Fabian of Ten Mothers Farm on a program called Kitchen Patrol. In partnering with the University of Chapel Hill’s Stone Center, they offer in-person cooking classes for young students in the local school districts.

In addition to improving food access to children and families in the area, Reusing wants to provide aid to budding restaurant owners, as well. While an official plan is still in the works, once Reusing owns the land her restaurant sits on she hopes to get the ball rolling.

“I own half of the real estate that the restaurant’s on, and the other half I’ve rented for 20 years and am in the process of buying that. In that process, I started thinking about space and land use,” said Reusing. “There’s this problem of people not really being able to try out brick-and-mortar spaces in a way that would give them information about what they want their business to be like — or even give them a way to make some capital while they’re figuring everything out.”

Reusing is still in the midst of conversations as far as what that might look like and the role her restaurant can play, and she would ideally like to see some sort of incubation space for primarily non-white restaurant owners.

With Chapel Hill’s restaurant scene continuing to thrive, that potential extra startup space will be much-needed.

“Because of the success of downtown Chapel Hill over the last 20 years, small spaces for entrepreneurs are harder to come by. That makes it more difficult, not impossible, but more difficult, for up-and-coming chefs to start out in the market,” said Matt Gladdek, executive director at Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. “This project that Andrea is hoping to get off the ground highlights that desire to provide space for new chefs to test out their ideas and move forward.”

Currently, Chapel Hill has the Blue Dogwood Public Market, a food hall that houses small, local food vendors. The food hall allows vendors to get their start or continue growing in a more affordable and approachable space.

For both Gladdek and Reusing, the continued support of local entrepreneurs is at the center of Chapel Hill’s future success.

“I hope that we can continue to help smaller restaurants expand and grow as they’re testing other concepts,” said Gladdek. “What people in the market really appreciate is an exciting food world with new people coming in and new things to try. We want to do everything we can to make sure that Chapel Hill stays at the center of that conversation in the food world.”

This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.