Eryk Pruitt hasn’t mellowed. He’s just made a promise to himself to ease up on his complaints until next year if the state government eased restrictions on bars. Pruitt owns Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew with his wife and business partner, Lana Pierce, and their smiles have been more frequent — even if hidden by face masks — since they were given permission to serve customers in limited seating outdoors.
North Carolina bars can now fill 30 percent of outdoor only seating. Kind of like buying a six pack of beer and being allowed to take only two of them.
“It’s nowhere near perfect, but in my opinion, it’s worlds better than what we had,” Pruitt said. “Now at least someone could sit down and order drinks instead of walking to a restaurant nearby, or walking somewhere else that, for whatever reason, is allowed to serve drinks. I could sit here all day and make arguments against it, I made a little promise to myself that I wouldn’t complain if I could just get some kind of seating. I won’t complain until 2021. I’m taking it. I’m taking it.”
Neighboring businesses have joined in with Yonder’s sigh of relief, and have tried to help. “Our neighbors have been quite generous in allowing us to expand our seating area,” said Lana Pierce. “We have opposite hours to Cup-A-Joe, so they’ve been amazing and have allowed us to basically extend our seating to in front of their space. And we also have an area behind our building that we are allowing for a smoking section. It’s an additional space for people to hang out. It helps. It definitely helps. It’s nowhere near the volume of people that we were serving previously.”
While It’s true Yonder is still struggling to make enough revenue to meet its needs, Lana and Eryk are motivated and pushing forward to come up with new ways to capitalize on what this new phase allows.
“We’re operating at a significant percentage less than we were before, but an even more significant percentage higher than we were when we were shut down for six months,” Pruitt said. “It’s fun, too, to get to see people again. During the shut down, we had (musician) Katharine Whalen live stream out of here to an empty room. Last Friday she just played right out the window for the people that were gathered. The best part is everybody’s in a good mood. Everybody’s happy and digging it. It’s almost like a little slice of normal.”
“They did an all-acoustic set. No amps, no noise complaints or anything like that. It was just three people playing and everybody enjoyed it. It was awesome,” Pierce added.
Pruitt said he is feeling relief and gratitude about finally being able to serve customers again. But he cautions against feeling optimistic, fearing the newfound freedoms may be temporary.
“I would not use the word optimism. We look at the newspapers, the numbers are going up. They’re not going down. We’re open for right now, but winter is coming. How long will we feasibly be able to seat people outside. We bought some space heaters. But how long will people be able to sit outside when they can just go sit inside? I complained for six months, and no politician was really listening. People weren’t listening to us when we complained about not having anything, so why would they listen to us complain at 30 percent? I’ll take the 30 percent. I want to say, though, that we wrote a lot of politicians. Nobody listened to us with the exception of Mayor Jenn Weaver and Rep. Graig Meyer. They were very receptive. I like to think they did somethings for us. But none of the others wrote us back.”
The two said they are diligent about policing customers’ actions and making sure people are respecting personal space.
“There’s always going to be that guy who just needs to be up in your face,” Pierce said. “You can’t do that. But, we’re on top of it. That’s the important thing for people to know. It’s always been a safe space, but now we have to do more to keep it safe.”
“The turnout has been great. People have been great,” Pruitt said. “The tables that we’ve put out there, they stay seated, relatively. It’s great because some of our busier neighbors, like the Wooden Nickel, they can only seat so many. People have found out that you can order your Wooden Nickel food to go and come here and eat it. Nomad will wait on you over here and bring the food over to you and serve it. A lot of people have figured out that even with these capacity restrictions, they can come over here. It’s been great to be an extension of some of these other establishments. We can see the concerns when some people have a couple of drinks and they want to get up and start socializing. We have to be on top of it and be, like, ‘No, you have to sit down.’ We state the rules, we’re very strict about them. If you’re standing, you have to wear your mask and you can’t be drinking. You can start drinking when you sit down, and that’s when you can take off your mask. You can’t socialize from table to table like you could before.”
Yonder will officially mark it’s first anniversary next month, and even though Covid has darkened its doors, the owners haven’t soured on their decision to open. They believe their regulars will return and new customers will follow. They still believe the area is on the brink of something big.
“When everything opens up, we’re going to be part of this King Street renaissance,” Pruitt said. “The Colonial Inn’s going to open, and we’ve got Nomad right next door and Tacos Los Altos and we’re right here. We’ve been speaking with all the owners and that’s the No. 1 thing. King Street’s going to be the coolest street in town. Sorry Churton. We kind of can’t wait for that. Bakova’s right there, too.”
“I think this town is big enough and it’s getting bigger every day,” Pierce said. “We offer something different. As soon as we’re able to have live music again, that’s our draw. The art on the walls is also another draw. I think we have different things to offer, and I don’t think we’re going to lose all that much because of that.”
Two surprises for Eryk and Lana when they got the go ahead to reopen: Needing to quickly restock the bar, and trying to remember how to make drinks.
“We were rusty as hell,” Pruitt admitted. “I used to make 25 Old Fashioneds in a night, but the first one someone ordered, I realized I’d forgotten how to make it. All of the schlepping tables back and forth and running this way and that. I lost six pounds of this Covid 20 that first night. It felt good to get back into it.”
Pierce said they are looking at shifting operating hours to take advantage of daylight. “People are day-drinking more than ever, so we might as well be there for them.”
Even though Pruitt has no intention of breaking the promise he made to himself, his annoyance with the way the state’s shutdown was carried out is never far from the surface.
“The frustration, especially at the beginning, was that this business could serve a beer inside and this business couldn’t. It’ wasn’t about Covid. If it had been about Covid, then they would say those businesses have to serve outside as well.”
“Or they would just shut down all liquor sales,” Pierce said. “Nobody can serve liquor. Period. They haven’t done that.”
“But that’s not what we want,” Pruitt quickly interjected. “Don’t give them any ideas. My politics are way screwy these days.”