Growing pains abound: A Durham restaurant’s COVID-19 challenges

By Blake Weaver

Jazz music plays while patrons argue among themselves about which flavored butter to order. College students sit next to professional athletes and blue-collar workers sit next to their city leaders. Dame’s Chicken and Waffles really doesn’t have any boundaries, even with a six-foot distance between tables.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia because of the history of the food and the music that we espouse and those two are married together,” Damion “Dame” Moore, co-owner of the restaurant, said. “At the end of the day, we want everybody to come here and experience. If you can learn something from it or share something with someone else, it’s all to the good.”

Even with over 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Durham County and mandatory masks, the Durham location keeps their tables full during rush hours. The same holds true for the Cary and Greensboro locations. The three have also pivoted to include a heavy focus on take-out. While there were growing pains abound and problems to be solved on how to go about practices like packaging food, the team eventually worked out simple solutions. Moore said these were good problems to have.

However, the food industry is one of the largest economic victims of the pandemic. Restaurants were forced to close their doors and refocus, or even reimagine, how they would continue to serve food. Dame’s was not immune to that challenge.

Dame’s expansion into Chapel Hill

The brand was originally set to open a new location on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, replacing the unit that [B]Ski’s had previously occupied. To Moore and co-owner Randy Wadsworth, opening in Chapel Hill was a no-brainer. The team believed their product had a proven, strong appeal to the demographics on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus that would expand into the greater Chapel Hill area.

Moore remembers college students coming into their Durham location when they opened in 2010, checking in on MySpace and Facebook, and being followed by even more students who did the same thing. Word-of-mouth advertising was the lifeblood of the restaurant back then and students obliged.

When the opportunity to take the recently vacant unit presented itself to the team, they knew they could handle it. Dame’s took ownership of the spot in January and originally looked towards a grand opening in either April or May. The concept would be noticeably different than their three sit-down locations, given the shotgun-style layout. In a space where they would have to pivot to a faster service model, the location would give them direct access to the UNC-CH campus and an undergraduate population of just under 20,000 students.

COVID-19 expansion setbacks

The team then decided to pause the expansion after the nation began shutting down and UNC-CH ordered students to return home.

“Come March, when the pandemic is full blast and people are leaving campus, we didn’t know what was going on in the world, so there was no need to open it now. So that ran its course and then you fall into the whole thing where now we’re in the summer and no one is really on campus,” Moore said. “Do you open and try to make it through the summer or do you pull back and see what happens?”

Moore thinks it was one of the team’s smartest decisions to not open at that time. When his team began looking at Chapel Hill, and up until the team decided to pause their new expansion, they felt it made no economic sense to try and rush things.

He looked at the recent closings of Medici, Lula’s and Lotsa Pizza, all at the main intersection of Franklin Street. All premium products in a market saturated with cheaper alternatives.

Moore and his team have considered the instability of Franklin Street’s restaurant market and they are not looking to simply rely on just their established product and brand.

This won’t be the brand’s first foray into a comparably faster service model. In 2015, the restaurant opened a quick service location on Duke’s Central campus named “Dame’s Express.” While it was difficult maintaining the nuance of the brand with the altered restaurant style, Moore believed that utilizing a different technique was a great experience.

“I do think that our brand has strong appeal. I do think we are a proven concept in this market and that people value it. I have fairly good confidence that our team will be able to execute at a high enough level to exceed expectations and do well in that market,” Moore said. “It also doesn’t hurt that we have a catering ability.”

Meanwhile, the three sit-down locations continue to serve guests both in-house and through takeout. Dame’s is also partnering with Durham Delivers, a food delivery service that pairs local restaurants with community members to make deliveries to designated areas. The service works to help restaurants avoid the high costs of food delivery services.

Moore anticipates the Chapel Hill location doesn’t have long before opening, as the physical aspects and inspections wrapping up and the administrative work is not far behind. He is delighted by is the patience and support his team has seen from the Chapel Hill community while they take their time getting the location up to Dame’s Chicken and Waffles’ high standards.

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak