By Rachel Crumpler
Will Gerstein is anxious and exhilarated. His whole family flew in from Wisconsin to witness his big moment — what he spent countless hours of the past year working toward.
With emotions high, he’s thinking, “What if it doesn’t work, and I’ve just wasted a year?”
But he’s also confident that this is something Chapel Hill, specifically UNC-Chapel Hill students, need. Being a 21-year-old sophomore at the university, he would know first hand.
What do all college students need? Late-night food to satisfy both savory and sweet cravings.
Gerstein’s pop-up restaurant, Buckets at Chapel Hill, provides just that.
It’s 9 p.m. and customers start to arrive at Buckets. The public food hall with multiple vendors is located on Franklin Street outside the Blue Dogwood Market. Guests scan a QR code that takes them to an online menu, and they place their orders right from their phones.
Inside, Gerstein and his employees cook and assemble orders of chicken and waffles, boneless wings, chicken sandwiches, and waffle sundaes. Food is brought out hot in styrofoam boxes adorned with a sticker of a basketball net.
Some people take their food to go, while others stay and enjoy their food sitting at one of a dozen outdoor patio tables lit overhead by string lights. It’s an energetic environment with music, chatter, and laughter.
As long as the food is served promptly and customers are satisfied, Gerstein says even five orders a day is a success. But he has done a lot more orders than that. And in the weeks since opening, it’s only gotten better.
“Every single night is busier than the night before,” Gerstein said. “We are on a straight upward trend right now.”
Bringing his restaurant experience to Chapel Hill
From the day Gerstein got to campus in fall 2020, he dreamed of opening a restaurant in Chapel Hill. But this wouldn’t be his first venture in the food industry.
Behind Gerstein’s youthful face and smiley disposition is the experience and business acumen ordinarily seen in someone much older.
In his senior year of high school, Gerstein founded Bucket Wings in his home state of Wisconsin amid the pandemic. He got the idea for his business after he placed an order at his local pizza place and a worker told him it wouldn’t be ready for three hours — a long wait time driven by the COVID-19 shutdown of most restaurants in his small town.
Gerstein decided to quit his minimum wage job at Subway to start a takeout centered wing joint using a few thousand dollars he had saved. He rented a commercial kitchen, which allowed him to tap into the marketplace demand.
Why chicken wings? Because it’s Gerstein’s favorite food, and he considers himself the “wing king.” Plus Buffalo Wild Wings, the closest wing restaurant, was a 40-minute drive away.
Now, he’s drawing from his prior experience running a restaurant to bring another late-night dining spot to Chapel Hill.
He started seriously pursuing the idea of opening a place in Chapel Hill toward the end of his freshman year. After being on campus, he realized how few late-night dining options existed. And the ones that did — Time-Out and Cosmic Cantina — did not satisfy his cravings for wings.
“I have a huge advantage because I am the target market,” Gerstein said. “I am a college kid. I am who I am selling to and that is why if I want something, usually it sells pretty well because every other college kid thinks kind of similarly.”
Buckets exceeds the expectations
Gerstein hasn’t let his prior business success blind him from the harsh realities of opening a new restaurant. He says he is acutely aware that, “Franklin Street is where restaurants go to die,” particularly those without an established reputation.
The street’s high turnover rate has recently claimed restaurants like Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, Lula’s, Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza, and Peño Mediterranean Grill. Determined to not have his venture become another lost restaurant, Gerstein created a very intentional plan for his business.
He put a year’s work into developing his menu, finding suppliers, designing the branding and marketing, and finding the perfect location.
Most location options required a permanent, long-term lease with high rent rates. But then he discovered Blue Dogwood Market, which would allow him to use the same model he used in Wisconsin of renting out a commercial kitchen.
One afternoon, last fall, on the outdoor patio, Gerstein met with Blue Dogwood Market owner, Sarah Boak, and presented his plan, a late-night pop-up that would operate from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. three days a week.
After being sold by Gerstein’s competence, planning, and experience, Boak was immediately on board. Gerstein’s young age never concerned her. In fact, she was thrilled to provide an opportunity to a student entrepreneur and for the first student-run business at Blue Dogwood Market.
They worked out an arrangement for Buckets to operate at Blue Dogwood Market for a five-week trial period that began on Feb. 11.
“Buckets has been cool because it’s brought in brand-new clientele — a lot of students,” Boak said.
The past weeks have shown Gerstein there is demand for his food, and he’s seen a high customer return rate. Buckets fulfilled around 200 orders in one night, for an average of an order a minute — a pace Gerstein said his staff can keep up with and should expect as normal volume.
Anjeline Lynch, a senior at UNC, has visited Buckets twice in two weeks and there’s still more on the menu she wants to go back for.
“I wish Buckets had been around for more of my college experience,” Lynch said.
Wings with a purpose
With the trial period nearly up, Gerstein plans to extend Buckets’ time at Blue Dogwood Market until the end of the school year and collect data to see if the demand remains stable.
In addition to students, Buckets also has the support of a few UNC athletes participating in Buckets’ “Athlete Giveback Program,” such as sophomore field hockey player Kiersten Thomassey.
Without knowing how successful Buckets would be, Thomassey jumped at the opportunity to use her name to give back when Gerstein approached her with the idea over winter break. For every buffalo chicken meal named after her that is sold, 8% of the revenue will be donated to Thomassey’s chosen charity.
Whether or not Buckets becomes a permanent restaurant in the fall, it does have the support of one particularly well-known figure, UNC men’s basketball coach Hubert Davis. Davis even agreed to have a Buckets meal named after him. Gerstein said Davis was the quickest to respond and said what Buckets was doing was incredible. Davis answered Gerstein within five hours of him sending a request for him to get involved, and before Buckets was even an official restaurant.
“If Hubert Davis believes in me, that says something, that means that I’ve got something good,” Gerstein said.
Edited by Sabrina Ortiz and Julia Rafferty