'Driven By Necessity:' Some Service Industry Businesses Launch Amid Pandemic
North Carolina's known for a few things: the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Outer Banks, barbecue and, lately, beer.
The craft beer industry has positively flourished here over the last 15 years or so. According to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, there are at least 320 breweries in the state – and upwards of 30 of them are located in the Charlotte region.
So, you'd think it'd be a great time to open a brewery, right? John and Jared Thomas did. The Charlotte natives moved back home from Asheville – another North Carolina beer hot spot – and found a spot on the east side to set up Edge City Brewery. Plans were coming along nicely, and they hoped to open the taps off Monroe Road at the beginning of April.
But, as with most things lately, 2020 had something to say about that.
The coronavirus hit North Carolina in March, and safety restrictions essentially meant the Thomas brothers couldn't open right away. But that didn't stop them.
"You have this idea of what it's going to look like when you open, and that was completely changed right from the beginning," John Thomas said.
Edge City delayed its opening, but the Thomas brothers started serving to-go beers in growlers as soon as they were able. That's how things stayed for more than a month.
"We had an ordering station outside and had everything spaced out six feet on the sidewalks as well as in the taproom," Thomas said. "We had this really great kind of assembly line through the taproom. We were able to offer beer and have people come look at the space without staying or feeling like they were putting themselves in a bad position."
It paid off. On that first day, they sold about 600 growlers, which is what they'd imagined selling in the entire first week. Several months in now, Thomas says, sales are going well – and people can actually grab a seat and have a pint these days. The brothers have been able to hire more staff, and the brewery has enough space – especially with its courtyard – to space folks out.
"We can't say enough about how much support we've had over here in east Charlotte," Thomas said. "Charlotte in general has been really awesome."
Plus, things are a bit better now – and the state's restrictions have been slowly easing. As of Oct. 2, North Carolina entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan.
"We're starting to see more people coming out and getting a little more comfortable with grabbing a drink," Thomas said.
For the Thomas brothers, the pandemic was a hurdle on the way toward their goal to opening shop. But for Candy and Kyle Van Hess, it was a catalyst.
The Van Hesses moved from Miami to Charlotte last fall for Kyle's new job as the executive sous chef for the Hornets. It was another step up the ladder for Kyle Van Hess, who'd held the same role for the Miami Marlins and was also a chef with the Heat.
But then the coronavirus hit the U.S., bringing the NBA to a halt and canceling the Hornets' season. Kyle Van Hess was, like so many in the service industry, suddenly out of work. Their rebound plan: Open a restaurant.
"It is a strange time, but sometimes it's driven by necessity," Kyle Van Hess said of opening the couple's first restaurant during the middle of a pandemic and a recession.
Their concept, Panca Peruvian Street Food, should open off Pineville-Matthews Road in the coming weeks. Candy Van Hess says she's excited to introduce more Charlotte residents to Peruvian cuisine – though she's quick to acknowledge that existing restaurants like Viva Chicken have already done a good job of it.
"Peruvian food is booming," Candy Van Hess said. "It's everywhere. It's trending. Once you try it, you're going to be like, 'Where have I been my whole life?'"
Kyle Van Hess, being a classically trained chef married into a Peruvian family and living in Miami, picked up some solid skills – enough to impress his mother-in-law.
"I let the food speak for itself," he said.
People are already eager to put it to the test. While on the phone with WFAE, Kyle Van Hess had to step away to tell someone at the door that Panca isn't quite open yet.
The Van Hesses poured their savings into the project. After hiccups with the permitting process, which they say are getting worked out after asking for help on social media, they're almost ready to open.
All of Panca's food will be served in biodegradable containers made from sugar cane, so the dishes aren't being reused.
"If you'd asked me a year ago if I was planning on opening a restaurant, I would have said no, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. The amount of feedback we've gotten has just been awesome. And as far as COVID – we built our whole concept to be COVID-proof."
Candy Van Hess says she's excited not just about the food but also sharing Peruvian culture. Panca features a wall-spanning mural by Peruvian-born artist Juan Tresierra. It features the pre-Incan Moche god of war, Peru's coat of arms, a depiction of the famous Nazca Lines — and the faces of two Moche warriors.
"It's like they're taking care of the restaurant," Candy Van Hess said.
Edge City and Panca are just two of a handful of food and beverage businesses to launch in Charlotte during the pandemic. The Charlotte Observer keeps a running list, and you can read more about some other success stories, like Leah & Louise and Hip Hop Smoothies on wfae.org.
A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.