NoDa businesses welcome return to normalcy as COVID restrictions ease

On May 14, Gov. Roy Cooper announced North Carolina will be lifting the statewide capacity limit, gathering limit, social distancing requirements, and most mask mandates. This came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped the mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people.

Cooper’s return to normal plan was put in place immediately, and crowds of happy faces poured in on North Davidson Street as businesses opened Friday night, ready to take on the revitalized energy.

Jamie Brown and Jeff Tonidandel, owners of Crepe Cellar, Haberdish, Growlers, and Reigning Doughnuts, did not require guests to wear masks as soon as Cooper’s announcement was released.

“We’re going to have our staff wear masks this evening,” Brown said on the first night of the mask mandate being lifted. “Possibly through the weekend, we just haven’t figured that out yet, and we’re probably going to do that so people can get the news. We’re afraid some people won’t get the news yet.”

Moving back toward what life was like pre-COVID will be an easy adjustment for Brown and her staff. Most of her employees have received a COVID-19 vaccination and feel comfortable coming back in the industry.

Brown’s restaurants will take a few weeks to transition into the 100 percent capacity because of staffing and supplies. They will need to hire more employees to ensure a smooth run at full capacity.

Cabo Fish Taco is also looking to hire, as the summer months are always the restaurant’s busiest time. Assistant Manager Ginamarie Stovall said she is more worried about hiring enough staff for the summer months than having NoDa return to a more normal state.

“We’re at 75 percent capacity because that’s what the governor allows us, but we’re ready for 100 percent,” Stovall said. “We could put all our tables back in tomorrow. I’ve been trying to staff up in order to do this, which is probably the hardest thing restaurants have been dealing with right now.”

An increase of 25 percent capacity at a restaurant really is not that much more in Stovall’s eyes, especially as the kitchen staff has managed to serve many customers through to-go orders.

“When you say capacity, you can fit more people in a restaurant; to me this past year tells me that doesn’t matter because of to-go orders,” Stovall said. “To-go orders have become such a big staple. It has been an adjustment in the kitchen as well. Capacity wise, I think we’re ready because we’ve been slammed just in to-go orders alone.”

Even as capacity increases and to-go orders roll in, Cabo Fish Taco will focus on keeping the quality of food and service at the top. If a Friday or Saturday night gets overwhelming, the team turns off Doordash as a way to best serve the guests.

Stovall said plans were still being discussed on how to proceed with the mask mandate being lifted but believed they would have a better idea after the first “normal” weekend back.

Throughout the COVID months, the owners of Cabo Fish Taco worked with the operations manager to figure out the game plan as new restrictions and updates were released. This latest announcement will just be another adaption for the restaurant.

“The slow times during this past year have been boring for us,” Stovall said. “We want to see people and we want people to come here.”

Before the mask mandate was lifted, Brown had already noticed more activity in NoDa with warmer weather approaching and more vaccines available.

“It’s really nice to see, especially at those (businesses) that have been there for a long time,” Brown said. “People are really starting to come back out over the last couple of weeks.”

A return to normal and a busy food industry will allow chefs to become more creative, according to Brown.

“This past year was literally just making it,” Brown said. “Now we can get more creative with more people in the door and demand for it.”

Normal is finally on the horizon, and businesses eagerly welcome back the NoDa neighborhood.