21-year-old entrepreneur brings new late-night food option to Chapel Hill

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

Community and friendship unite the UNC table tennis team

By Zachary Crain

Tucked in a corner at the bottom of the Student Union, down a few sets of stairs or a 2 o’clock turn just past Wendy’s, sit four tables.

Usually, students are able to rent a table and play ping pong here. But today, eight students brought their own paddles.

A few more sit in scattered chairs, part-watching while half-attempting to study with the backdrop of an entrancing show. Two more students rest a few feet away from the courts, leaning against pool tables covered by well-worn green billiard cloth.

This fluorescently lit corner is home to a team culture and community that differentiates itself from other club sports at UNC.

Despite being at a predominately white institution, all but four of the 33 members of UNC’s club table tennis team are either Asian American or Asian, and seven are Chinese international students.

One of the players, sophomore Warren Winfield, leaned against a pool table and spooned away at a Frosty while explaining the rules of the game. In tournaments, they play games to 11 — the best three-games-of-five wins the match. But now, everything rests on a single game.

When a game begins, slow bends on the serve and return quickly evolve into rapid-fire instinctual reaction. Players pinch their paddles in a penhold, back away from the table, and spin the ball out of sight and onto their opponent’s side.

The atmosphere is simultaneously relaxed and competitive. Some games are filled with compliments and conversations, others with trash talk and animated reactions. All games include laughter.

“It’s definitely a unique culture, and it’s really hard to describe,” junior Jasper Ou, the president of the club, said.  “It’s just a nice way to de-stress. I know that some sports clubs are super intense about it, and I don’t think that was ever our goal.”

After Ou chomps down on a Wendy’s chicken sandwich and disappears for a moment, a few players come over and make sure it’s known:

“He is the best player we have.”

From playing abroad to UNC

Ou’s journey with the sport started on a day he was too young to remember in 2006, on a trip to visit his grandparents in China.

His parents took his older brother, Jonathan, to a table tennis community center, and he immediately fell in love with the sport. A few years later, Jonathan was competing in the Junior Olympics. But compared to now, Ou’s approach to table tennis was much more relaxed growing up.

“I didn’t ever practice a lot, it was mainly just my dad and my brother,” Ou said. “The passion came during COVID. We just couldn’t really do anything outside, so we just unpacked the table in the garage and played with each other.”

Yi Pan discovered the sport as a primary school student in China. When she arrived in Chapel Hill as a sophomore more than 7,000 miles away from home in Shanghai she just wanted to find someone to play with.

Pan joined the club team and found more than just a few partners.

“It’s cool, I didn’t expect to make American friends when I first came to UNC,” Pan said. “I thought that was very tough, we didn’t have much to talk about. But table tennis kind of united us together.”

On the nearest table, Daniel Xie is engaged in a battle with his friend and roommate, Daniel Wei. Xie didn’t practice much growing up, except for an occasional game with his dad and sister. But in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, high-pressure games at a community table and on the club team sparked his obsession.

“That competitive environment just got me into ping pong,” Xie said. “I would play three hours a day — not even exaggerating. I’d be in the ping pong room all the time trying to play, trying to get better. It was really fun for me, I liked to see that kind of improvement.”

Today, he’s drawn to the sport by trick shots, which are “crazy-ass” moves in the middle of the point.  Xie said it’s an adrenaline rush seeing his work pay off and inching him closer to being the best.

You can see it now as Xie plays against Wei.

One shot lands and Wei falls down on the ground. Another one lands and Wei tells him just how lucky he is. A few more, and Xie wins the match.

Ou transferred to UNC after his freshman year, and it wasn’t immediately clear if he’d find an Asian American community in Chapel Hill.

“It’s definitely unique in that aspect, I think it’s really helpful,” Ou said. “I can’t speak on behalf of other Asian people, but I haven’t really found that large of an Asian American community, so this is nice, honestly. That’s the best way I can put it.”

The team’s special bond

The closeness of the club’s members is immediately obvious when watching them play together. In every strike, friendly taunt, point, given pointer, giggle and Wendy’s product eaten — you can see the closeness is there.

One of the special shared memories the players have is their journey to Charlotte, North Carolina for the sectional tournament. The drive consisted of two hours driving down, three different cars, and many hours of table tennis. One hour was spent stopping nearby for pizza and another driving past Chapel Hill and down to Cary, North Carolina because Ou wanted to eat at a restaurant called Noodle Boulevard. In some cars people were singing karaoke, others were playing road games and others were sleeping. 

Winfield said this tournament road trip brought the players closer together. 

“Got to meet a lot of new people and bond with the people,” Winfield said.

All the players say this road trip is their best memory with the team.

During the trip, Ou won the individual title at the tournament and led UNC to its first National Collegiate Table Tennis Association Carolina Division team championship in club history.

At the end of February, there’s another road trip to look forward to — this time to the regional tournament in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sometimes, the players reveal their closeness by talking in the club’s GroupMe chat. Other times it’s found in the friendly banter and boasts after winning points. Sometimes, they show it just by hanging out, playing music, studying, and talking in their locker in the Student Union.

But always, that closeness is there.

For Ou, it isn’t clear exactly where it comes from. It could come from the group’s shared heritage, or maybe their laid-back approach. To Ou, some impossible-to-put-your-finger-on aspect of the club is that it feels special, just unique.

“You’ll usually find me here all the time,” Ou said. “You’ll find them all just hanging around here. I think it’s really nice, actually, that we can all just have a place that we can all just collectively hang out in. I don’t know. I think it’s just really nice.”

Edited by Sabrina Ortiz and Julia Rafferty