Local businesses, still impacted by COVID-19, react to George Floyd protests

Boarded up windows at vandalized buildings in downtown Raleigh are spraypainted with messages of hope a day after protests of the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd turned violent in North Carolina’s capital. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

RALEIGH/CHAPEL HILL — More than three weeks after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, individuals and businesses across the country continue to pay their respects. In North Carolina, where hundreds gathered in Raeford on June 6th to attend Floyd’s second memorial service, local businesses across the state closed their doors to customers for one of two reasons. For some, it was a symbolic gesture out of respect for Floyd’s family and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But other local businesses were forced to close after being victimized by destructive looters and riots.

A man sits inside Treat, an ice cream shop in downtown Raleigh’s City Market, on Sunday morning. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

Many in Raleigh’s restaurant industry, still reeling from the economic fallout of having to shut down operations due to COVID-19, are now facing costs associated with the unrest and curfews that were put into place for the week following the violent demonstrations that turned the city’s downtown upside down. Over the course of one weekend, there was looting at Reliable Jewelry, small fires set at Manhattan Café, and complete destruction of the CVS Pharmacy. Debbie Wray Holt, owner of Clyde Cooper’s BBQ has been one of the most visible and outspoken critics of the lack of police response when rioters took to the streets, using the restaurant’s social media outlets to illustrate her experience as the protests turned violent.

“My friends, remember while we were at our restaurant, a police car sat outside by Reliable Jewelry, and DID NOTHING while it got destroyed. Then pulled off. When we called 911, we were told cops were told to NOT CONFRONT … Got to understand this was Saturday night, you know when the chief said it was peaceful.  THEN what happened Sunday night?  There STILL was no roaming officers anywhere, so the vandals had their way with destroying what ever they could.  NOT WELL THOUGHT OUT!!!”  

Another longtime downtown business owner, Rick French, chairman & CEO of French/West/Vaughan advertising agency, wrote an op-ed in the Triangle Business Journal that highlighted his concerns about how the city handled the protestors.

In reference to the century-old building on East Hargett Street that houses his agency he wrote, “As I sit here Monday afternoon, it is entirely boarded up, with its windows shattered and horrible graffiti painted on the side of the building, which my team has been scrubbing away. My story is the story of so many of us who have invested our hearts, our energy, our talents and our resources to make downtown Raleigh a better place for our community. And my heart breaks today for all of our businesses who are dealing with the aftermath of this weekend’s senseless riots and looting in downtown Raleigh and elsewhere throughout our community.”

French says he got 300 emails, texts, or voice messages from fellow members of Raleigh’s business community in support of his op-ed.

Some local business owners used the weekend’s events to condemn racial inequality. Empire Eats, which operates some of the Oak City’s most popular restaurants including Pit Authentic BBQ, Gravy and Sitti, had this to say on its Facebook page, “We at Empire condemn the recent acts of racism and violence against George Floyd and so many other Black men and women before him. These are sad reminders of the deep-rooted racism we still have in our country, our workplaces and in our institutions. Black Lives Matter. We stand united and committed to dismantling racism in all forms… At Empire Properties and Empire Eats, we are going to make an effort to work towards social justice and collaborate to dismantle racism.”

People board up broken windows of buildings in downtown Raleigh’s City Market on Sunday morning, a day after protests of the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd turned violent in North Carolina’s capital. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

Similarly, nationally acclaimed chef Ashley Christensen, who often uses her various platforms to comment on social issues, posted on the Poole’s diner Facebook page, “As we continue on the process of re-opening our businesses, we will be donating a portion of the proceeds of our highest-selling dishes at each location to an organization doing anti-racist work. We commit to doing this in perpetuity.” Christensen currently owns six food and drink venues in Raleigh, and one of her restaurants, Chuck’s Burgers, was damaged during the riots.

Footaction athletic retailer in Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall closed their entire store during the Floyd memorial services and posted a sign that read: “In order to give our team members time to reflect on recent tragedies, mourn black lives lost and begin to heal, our store will be closed on Saturday, June 6 and Monday, June 8 in honor of the celebration of life service for George Floyd. On these days, we will pay our respects to his memory.”

Yet just 20 miles down I-40 in nearby Durham and Chapel Hill, protests against police brutality on the black community were peaceful from the very start. In Durham, police cars provided an escort for the procession and helped shut down streets to allow the demonstrations to take place. And in Chapel Hill, some local business owners even took part including 411 West managing partner Tommy O’Connell, who marched with activists on Franklin Street.

Greg Overbeck, co-owner and marketing director for the Chapel Hill Restaurant group which operates 411 West, Lula’s, Squid’s, Page Road Grill and Mez said they did not close any of their eateries because they were confident the demonstrations would be peaceful. “We didn’t have to take any precautions because we felt certain the march would be the sort of peaceful demonstration of solidarity that our town meant it to be.”

Employees at the iconic clothing boutique Julian’s handed out bottled waters to protestors as they passed by. Manager Bart Fox says that while they did not close the store to customers, they did place black poster board in all storefront windows so as not to capitalize on the foot traffic or make the protests into an opportunity to promote their merchandise.

“We just thought out of respect this would remove some of the commercialization from the protests.” Like most retail in the area, the coronavirus shutdown forced Julian’s to close for 13 weeks and even now Fox says he is operating at a very limited capacity.