Earlier this year, at the end of February, Eryk Pruitt and his wife and business partner, Lana Pierce, looked back over the recent and growing success of their business. The two opened Yonder Southern Cocktails & Brew in mid-
November 2019, and had watched its crowds grow and grow more regular. One week of record business was topped by the following week, and then again by the next.
“I sent out this tweet right at the end of February,” Pruitt said. “It said something, like, ‘Man, things are going so good right now!’ That tweet did not age well.”
At 5 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, Yonder closed its doors to customers as a part of North Carolina’s mandated shelter-in-place as a response to COVID-19. The doors have re-opened since, but the bar itself and the surrounding tables and chairs continue to gather dust.
Even though Yonder has found some success as a retailer of beer and wine, the owners continue to gather frustrations.
“I had cycles of grief … in stages, you know?” Pruitt said. “First it’s like ‘this isn’t going to be that bad. Maybe a week or two.’ And then I would get triggered by opening a drawer and seeing an old flyer when we had a band in here, and I’d be like ‘oh man, we had it so good. I really miss the shows.’ And then the anger, I think, was the hardest one to deal with. You don’t really know where to put that. I’m really upset with the governor. I know they’re trying to do things to keep the spread under control, but it’s unfair that this is closed and this isn’t. You get upset at the Federal level because they’re dropping every ball there is to drop. That was probably the hardest part for me is I’d get so angry I just don’t know how or where to direct it. This month, I started to accept it.”
“For me, the frustration, especially during this Phase 2 of reopening of restaurants, has been we’ll come in and we’ll do the bottle shop and I’ll take a walk around the corner and see all of our regulars sitting outside at restaurants having a drink,” Pierce said. “All they’re doing is having a drink. They’re not having a bite to eat. They’re having a drink. I get it, I get it. I don’t blame them. People want to be out. We’re willing to do that. The biggest frustration for me is watching these other businesses flourish, but we’re not allowed to. It kind of pisses me off.”
“Eighty-five percent of the state’s alcohol license holders are allowed to serve,” Pruitt said. But bars can’t. Just so the governor can come out and say, ‘We shut down bars because we care about North Carolina.’ They didn’t shut down bars. You can still get the same drinks you get here in a hotel, a restaurant, a distillery or brewery. 85 percent of the license holders are allowed to serve. We’re just not. And there’s no ‘well, let’s help you out until that time.’ I don’t like feeling like we’re kind of a pawn in a political game.”
Before it was Yonder, the King Street Bar was going through struggles. Its owner reached out to Lana and Eryk to help with managing the bar to see if it could be turned around.
“We ended up trying out a few things and really digging it and getting to know all the people around here in the community,” Pruitt said. “We had things going on the upswing, but it wasn’t enough. So, when his business went under, we asked the landlord if we could take over the lease and do it as our own bar.”
Neither had owned a bar before, but Pruitt had managed restaurants and bars for decades. “This situation set us up pretty well because when the previous owner had to leave, it was either go look for another job running a bar or just pony up and jump in,” Pruitt said.
Why the name Yonder? Pruitt, who is also a writer, said much of the fiction he writes is based in the South.
“It’s one of those semi-archaic words that most southerners will just get it,” Pruitt said. “We ran through a bunch of different names, and we wanted to kind of set ourselves a little different from the dive bar.”
The bar’s party-like atmosphere was a steady-building hit. “We were breaking records week after week,” Pierce said. “We were throwing a party every time you walk in the door. The whole plan was for people to come and have a good time and want to come back. I think we were accomplishing that.”
Then a pandemic walked in and closed the bar down.
“We had bands booked all the way into July,” Pruitt said. “We did live music in here on Fridays and Saturdays. We had to let all of those folks know. Basically, from about 5 p.m. March 17, to June 1, we just shut down. We were going to try to wait it out and spend as little money as we could. We turned off the gas, unplugged things. By June, we just couldn’t take it anymore. Our landlord was very, very kind to defer three months rent, but that ended on July 1. So we needed to find some money. We weren’t getting help from the Fed, that PPP thing. So were, like, we have all this beer that we bought up when things were going well. We decided to sell it and see if people will come out and support a retail store. That’s about all we’re legally allowed to do.”
For what it’s worth, the retail gig has done OK for Yonder’s owners. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, customers can buy local beer, in six-packs and four-packs. You can also purchase bottles of wine. Pierce used a Frozé recipe she had and now sells the frozen drinks, which come in strawberry or peach, in mason jars.
“We’ve got ‘buzz balls,’ Pierce said. “It’s made out of what’s called orange wine. They are delicious. It’s a non-carbonated alcoholic beverage. It’s stronger than a really strong IPA. You drink those if you want to catch a buzz. It’s like a cocktail. It’s the closest thing to a mixed drink that we can serve without serving an actual mixed drink. The chocolate one tastes like a White Russian. It’s just delicious.”
“We were able to pay our rent,” Pruitt said. “Not much more than that. We’re tightening our belts. We’d rather not spread COVID. I know we could safely operate as a bar, and we were prepared to do so when the first restrictions were being rolled back. We could offer 25 percent capacity and keep people separated and put in place all these protocols to make sure everything is clean. I feel confident in that. As a retail store, the mark-up is not the same at all. What we sell here is a place to hang out. But now that’s illegal. To hang out here. So, it’s different. We’d be able to make it just barely as a retail store until, hopefully, we can do some kind of service inside.”
But neither of the owners of Yonder are holding their breath. Twice Gov. Roy Cooper has teased bar owners with potential dates for re-opening bars, and twice bar owners have been disappointed.
“The governor has pulled the rug out from under us before,” Pruitt said. “We all sat there like it was going to be a holiday, and it didn’t happen. He moves it to July 17, and everyday I refresh the COVID graphs and the statistics. I’d love to hear that something crazy’s gonna happen between now and July 17, but now I refuse to put my emotional eggs in that basket.”
“”We have July 4th weekend happening right now, so July 17 is right about when the next spike it going to hit,” Pierce adds.
To help keep their emotions in check, Pierce also sells homes and Pruitt has his fiction writing, which he said has not yet started to reflect his real-life frustrations.
“Lately I’ve been ghost-writing romance fiction, which I never thought I’d be doing,” Pruitt said. “But you gotta put food on the table somehow. Ghost-writing romance, which a lot of people in Hillsborough do. You’d be surprised. Aside from my regular crime-fiction stuff.”
The couple have friends who are bartenders at other local bars and in Durham who share many of the same frustrations.
“We can go down a pretty dark hole texting each other back and forth,” Pruitt said.
“I’m not going to sit around an wallow in it,” Pierce added. “I want to figure out what the hell we’re going to do. I have applied for every grant, for every loan out there. The PPP? I got screwed over four times now. They said they couldn’t prove who I was. Even though I gave them every thing they wanted. After that, they said my credit was bad, and it’s near-perfect. Then they said my application disappeared.”
Pierce pets their dog, Crouton, trying to settle her rising rising frustrations.
“Do not go through PayPal Loan Builder if you’re looking for a PPP loan,” she said.
During the time Yonder has been closed or operating on limited hours, several changes have been made to the business. Just before COVID shuttered the shop, the Orange County Economic Development gave them a grant to install new music equipment for musicians that play there. Yonder now has a professional, high-quality sound system that allows the musicians to just plug and play instead of lugging in their own equipment.
“It’s all digital,” Pierce said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
“There was an old confessional that the previous owner had put in here that served no purpose,” Eryk continued. “The only purpose it really served was being something to talk about when people came in. ‘What’s the deal with that thing over there?’ We just used it for storage. Since then, we turned it around and made it a little nook that you can sit in and have a private conversation if you want. We call it the John Wilkes Booth.”
Despite having a small level of success with going to a retail model, the owners have no disillusions about getting back to running a bar. They said they would happily drop being a bottle shop. Still, it has helped keep things in perspective, and even helped them to see their situation from a new perspective.
“If you had caught me three days ago I would have been nothing but angry rants,” Pruitt said. “But I got to the point to where I said I just have to turn over a new leaf. It wasn’t doing me any good. Before COVID, I would have said we were providing a service to people. We put some money into this place, we’ll put in some places to sit and some interesting things to drink, get some music in here, and we’ll provide a service to people. But lately, since we’ve been doing this retail, we really feel that people are doing a service to us. They could go get a six pack of beer or wine at the grocery store or anywhere, but some of them are coming here. They buy it — and the little tip line is unnecessary, but it’s still on there because we can’t change the receipt — people are leaving these big tips. They know that we’re in trouble. I can’t bring myself to do the Go-Fund Me or these other things. But people are coming in — when they don’t have to — to buy from us. Before I would say that we were providing a service to people, but now I see people are really going out of their way to help us. That makes me feel a lot better than anything I’m seeing on the news.”