The radius is the line that runs from the center to the perimeter of a circle. When you have more than one radius, or radii, you begin to create wedges. When you put enough of those wedges together you get something that resembles a pizza. Kate Carroll, who opened a pizzeria in 2013 with her husband, Mick, describes the varied customer base of the Hillsborough restaurant as “wedges of life.” And when you put enough of those wedges together you get something that resembles Radius Pizza.
Over the past few months, though, those wedges have been unable to get together. COVID-19 and the efforts to slow its spread have taken a mammoth bite from Radius’ business, despite its efforts to stay afloat through curbside and take-out offerings.
“We’re basically trying to keep things moving,” Carroll said. “We’re trying to keep the muscles slightly toned. Business is down by about 84 percent. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and so is Mick. For us to have something to do that feels valuable and productive helps us feel like we’re making a contribution. We’re so grateful that the customers that are coming are supportive and appreciative. But it’s kind of a battle of wits. It’s like, if you’re scaling a tall mountain and you’ve just got to keep telling yourself ‘don’t look down,’ but ‘don’t look up too much.’ You have to keep your eyes on where you are and look about 15 feet ahead.
Even with the onset of Phase 2 toward reopening North Carolina, Radius isn’t prepared to welcome guests into the restaurant.
“We’re hoping, if we can get Mother Nature to cooperate with us, to be able to open the patio,” Kate said. “But we’re still also formulating how that will work, both for our staff in keeping them safe; and keeping their morale up and helping them feel confident that they’re safe. There’s so much information out there that it’s really hard for folks to parse out the information to allow themselves to absorb what’s safe, what’s not safe when it’s easier for everybody to just say, ‘I’m not going to come into contact with anybody.’ I completely understand and respect that perspective. We’re going with the science, and we’re going with the recommendations from the Orange County Health Department, from the CDC and also from alternative resources for information, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. There are ways we can engage with our communities in person that will still keep people safe. That’s part of my job in our business. Taking all that information in, sifting through it and filtering it out. Reinterpreting it and then communicating that to our team so my employees can feel confident.”
Carroll and her husband place a high priority on their staff because they care deeply about them and consider them family. They also recognize the importance of customer interaction with the staff. This has been one of the challenges of working through the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to convey that personal exchange as much as possible so it’s not just like basically being a drive-thru. I hope it’s better food! (Laughs). At the end of the day, you’ve got to bring more to the customers’ experience than just the food.
Beyond the human aspect, the Radius owners needed to tackle and figure out the best technology to bring the ordering experience to the customer in a way that made sense, and would be easy for them to navigate and communicates what it needs to communicate.
“We closed on the 20th of March and we reopend on the 8th of April because we wanted to develop and online ordering system,” Kate said. “The call-in ordering was not allowing our staff and the public to social distance in a way that we felt safe for either our staff or customers. It was still the early days of the virus. I think a lot of folks in the community had to adjust what they were used to. It’s a beautiful thing that folks still want that level of interaction with our team, but our team wasn’t able to meet that expectation. So, we closed so that we could set up an online ordering portal.”
Reopening for curbside and take-out became a family effort with the Carrolls’ twin sons pitching in to help the business. The two had in the past helped out at Radius, but with most of the staff staying offsite, Wyatt and Ronan helped roll dough and fold pizza boxes while their dad prepped food and did dishes.
“We were burning the candle at both ends. We slowly added people to come in to work, but only those who were comfortable doing so,” Kate said. “I think also that with the time that elapsed between when we started taking call-in orders and when we closed had given folks in the community a chance to get used to the new way of doing business. Like giving credit card info over the phone and having people walk food out to your car. It’s like we’ve created a whole new business. We have a known product. We have a customer base. But almost everything else is different.”
Kate Carroll was raised in Durham. After graduating from East Carolina University, she moved to San Franscisco. There she met and married Mick. Months after the births of their twin boys, the Carrolls moved back to North Carolina.
“We needed grandparents. Badly,” she said. “We just realized that life would be a lot easier if we were closer. Plus, it’s just better to raise kids in North Carolina rather than San Franscisco. We were on the 7th floor of a high-rise condo. Fitting the double-stroller into the elevator wasn’t easy. The cost of living is certainly far less. It just felt like we were ready for a change.”
The couple eventually decided to craft a plan for a restaurant, building off Mick’s restaurant experience and Kate’s business knowledge.
“We opened on March 26, 2013,” Kate said. “We opened with the idea of having a brick oven pizzeria with a natural fermentation process for dough. That means we don’t use a dry yeast. We make what is known to bread bakers as a “mother starter.” Mick made his about 8 years ago with pineapple juice and water and then you let that ferment for a few days. And then you keep feeding it with flour and water. We’ve been using that same starter for a little over eight years. We built the restaurant because we wanted a place where we could bring our children and we could feel like we wouldn’t be disturbing our patrons with our kids. Like a family-friendly restaurant that provided a global comfort food experience. I sometimes call it ‘sneaky gourmet.’ We don’t want to bore anybody with the details of what goes into making our pizza. We just want you to enjoy it. People with kids, empty-nesters, business lunch, girls night out; first-time date, night out with friends. We wanted the restaurant to appeal to all these different sections of our community and all these different sections of our lives. And I think we were successful in developing a place like that. We were very fortunate that we have many patrons who come three, four, five times a week. They might show up for lunch and then show up for drinks with friends later that day. I’ve had people walk up to me and say, “You know, this is the fourth time this week I’ve been here.”
Radius Pizza enjoyed consistent success. Enough that the Carrolls were able to renovate the restaurant in February, which is traditionally a slower time for the business. And then March came.
“We were going to be open for the spring and we’re just going to kill it,” Kate said. “Come back strong (after the remodeling) and it’s gonna be fantastic. We closed to remodel the bar, a massive maintenance upgrade and paint the interior. We fixed things that needed fixing, we cleaned the entire restaurant within an inch of its life; and we opened up the bar and reconfigured it. We removed some shelving that was in front of the window. We’ve got more space back there and it’s bright and open. It looks great. We can’t wait until we’re able to have people back inside to benefit from it.”
Having people back in the restaurant during the time of the coronavirus means more changes.
“We’re going to be following what the N.C. Health Department dictates, first and foremost,” Kate said. “There’s a lot of information that we received from the Orange County Health Department. The big things are we have to interview each of our employees every day before their shift starts, on whether they’re having any symptoms, if they’ve been around anyone that has been diagnosed with COVID-19 within the last 14 days. Or been within six feet or less with them for 10 minutes or longer. If the answer to that is yes, then we have to send them home. The next question is whether the employee is having any symptoms. If the answer is yes, we send them home. The last is we ask them if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the last time they came to work.”
Radius can normally have up to 91 people inside, with another 40 people on its patio. But the Phase 2 rules greatly reduce that number.
“We have to decrease our seating now to a maximum of 50 percent occupancy inside the restaurant,” Kate said. “The guests cannot be less than six-feet from each other. For some restaurants, that means they won’t be able to have even 50 percent in their dining area. It’s the same for bar seating. Technically, we’re not allowed to have six people at a table together unless they are family. The groups of people cannot be under six feet from each other. We have a pretty big dining room. We could put more than 46 people in our restaurant, and people would be more than six feet from each other. But the law states that you can’t have more than 50 percent of your occupancy. That includes your employees. If I’ve got five people in the kitchen, then I’m down to 41 customers. And then there’s myself and three other staff, so now I’m down to 37 inside the restaurant. We don’t know yet whether these numbers will make sense for us.”
Despite the limits and changes Radius is now going through, the owners said the community has been largely supportive and understanding.
“The response has been ‘we miss you.’ ‘We want you to reopen.’ ‘We’re grateful that you are open and that you’re doing as much as you are,’” Kate said. “We’ve had some people who are, I would say, frustrated that we have not opened our dining room. My husband and I try to temper that with keeping in mind that these folks love Radius and they want to have that experience they used to have. We try to keep that foremost in our mind when folks maybe very unhappy that we’re not open.
“Some have asked if we really think all of this was and is necessary. Unfortunately, I have been directly connected to people who have had people very close to them die. I know nine people who have died (related to COVID-19). Unfortunately, I do think all of this is necessary,” she said.
“I respect that people really want to get back to business. I respect that people want to ask questions, and I really respect that they want to hear the answers. That’s the key to getting through all of this: keep asking questions and keep listening.”
Through it all, the Carrolls are continuing to try to be creative in their approach to the restaurant, although they now say all decisions are based on what they can afford.
“I think online ordering at Radius is definitely here to stay,” Kate said. “Practically every day I am adding more customization for the customer. I think people are going to be getting take out in much higher numbers than what they used to be. I think our menu is going to be smaller than it was pre-Covid. Hopefully we’ll be able to offer weekly specials more than we used to. I don’t know when we’ll be opening for lunch again. I’m not sure that’s going to be profitable for a while. I think we’ll also go to a five-day work week for us. Right now, we’re only open four days a week, but that’s mostly because we’re trying to get our kids through their schooling. Once we get into the summertime we’ll see if it makes sense to open a fifth day, and then we’ll see if it makes sense opening for lunch. Before COVID, we were all about “what do you think the customer wants? What cool idea can we come up with for menu items. Now, every decision we’re making is based on whether it’s financially feasible.”
Regardless of that, the owners of Radius Pizza are still finding ways to give back to its community and particularly the frontline health care workers. The restaurant recently launched the “Pie-It-Forward” campaign.
“You can donate pizza to your local hospital or Durham Rescue,” Kate said. “You can buy a pack of 10 or 15, or you can buy two packs of 10 or 15, or you can buy just one pizza and once we have 10, we will pack them up and drop them off to whatever charity. For every five pizzas that are purchased, we donate a pizza. And these are our signature pizzas. That’s on our online ordering portal.”
Radius is also working on creating a mobile pizza party by sending out Facebook surveys to see which neighborhood would like Radius to come out to deliver a pizza party.
“We’re gonna load up the Radius van with different pizzas and different salads. Possibly beverages. We’ll blast it on social media. Those are things we’ve got in the works,” she said.
The Carrolls have also started Failte Fields Farm, which is a garden on the family’s farm. Failte means “welcome” in Gaelic. Kate said some of the veggies and herbs grown on the farm, which will include heirloom Irish curly greens, Rosemary, sage, lemon thyme, parsley, mixed lettuces, chives and onions may be used in the restaurant’s meals.