The table was nearly set for Nomad. The dishes were arriving, bar equipment was being installed. Potential hires were being interviewed and kitchen training was underway. “Coming soon” wasn’t just the perfect, albeit cliché headline for the restaurant set in a renovated movie house. It was the moment in time for the four business partners who locked arms for a photograph in January in front of their doors just waiting for their chance to open and welcome Hillsborough diners. Indeed, “coming soon” couldn’t come soon enough. It never did.
“We were two weeks away from opening. And then the pandemic hit,” said B.J. Patel, who co-owns Nomad, with his wife, Smita, and his brother Sejal. “When the governor shut down the state, we wondered what the hell do we do? With so much time and money invested. So much effort and legwork.”
“About $5,000 worth of equipment came in the week that the shutdown was announced,” added Nick Singh, who is a managing partner for the restaurant. “The front half of the restaurant was full of stuff for finishing the place. We couldn’t even act on it. We froze for the better part of a week because we didn’t know what would happen next.”
For an opening that was almost two years in the making, the mandated shutdown was disorienting to its owners. The definition of nomad is ‘people who travel from place to place,’ which the group was paying tribute to by celebrating its rich history of global travels and food experiences.
“We were still coming in, but we were also spending a lot of time at home twiddling our thumbs, trying to figure out what we should do and when we should do it,” Patel said. “I was confident that, no matter what, we were going to be able to do something. And, as time progressed, we would change our game plan. Initially were going to do small plates, tapas-style global street food. That’s not very takeout friendly.”
Even after the Fed rolled out programs to help small businesses with financial losses because of COVID-19, Nomad couldn’t capitalize, having been able to hire one employee, Chef R.J. St. John prior to shutdown.
“It was after five or six weeks of the shutdown that we would either change or adapt to what’s happening or we would continue to take a loss until we could fully reopen,” said Singh.
Once again, for a restaurant that was so close to firing up the grill, the pandemic twisted that perspective to show just how far the owners were from opening for business.
“Even with the basics, we had to reschedule meetings with the health department for inspections because they didn’t want to go through the process if we didn’t have a set open date,” Patel said. “But that helped us focus and to decide. We said, ‘you know what, we’re going to make some changes, talk to the chef, adjust to covid times, and make more takeout-friendly options.’ That’s what we do now with the bowls. Limited amount of appetizers, but mostly bowls.”
“Our original plan was more elaborate,” Singh continued. “It was going to be heavy on seafood. But that’s not takeout-friendly. By the time you take it home, it’s not even half the quality you would have had at the restaurant. That forced us to reconsider the menu. But again, our passion, our experiences in life around the globe says this shouldn’t be a difficult challenge. We can create unique dishes that people can still experience that we’ve brought forth from around the globe.”
Patel said Nomad would likely keep in place some of the adjustments Covid forced, but he has no delusions about the coronavirus going away any time soon. He also believes the restaurant industry is undergoing changes that were likely already on the horizon.
“I think everything’s changed. The whole game. The whole restaurant industry has changed. We’re going to have to adapt to not being just dine-in-only. We are going to have to be comfortable with whatever we do have, and make sure it works for take-out,” Patel said.
Singh concurred. “A majority of income and revenue coming into the restaurant is takeout. That’s what the industry is going to have to adapt to. We’ve talked about this the last couple of years that this industry is evolving to the next phase, which is going to be more takeout, take home dishes, and less dining experiences.”
The two mentioned watching a U.S. Foods webinar in the later part of 2019, that predicted in the near future the majority of food from a restaurant would be consumed outside of a restaurant.
‘Ghost kitchens’ would grow with the help of platforms like Grubhub and other third-party delivery services. It’s a trend that will continue to change restaurants and dining experiences even beyond a pandemic.
“It’s just less real estate,” Singh said. “(Brick and mortar) prices keep increasing and we’re being challenged on a frequent basis to adapt and change how we grow our revenue stream to cover costs on everything. When you think about ghost kitchens, it’s smaller space. You still have a kitchen, but on average, it’s 30 percent of the square footage you’re paying for. The rest is dining. So, if you can do the same revenue with minimal costs, why wouldn’t you? Because the inflation is insane. It’s ridiculous. People think that there’s a lot of profit, but there’s a lot of work to get that profit.”
“You have to streamline everything and cut whatever costs you can, without sacrificing the product,” Patel said.
Patel and Singh said once Nomad opened, the support from the community came pouring in, even if it was only for takeout. And it wasn’t long before the demand pushed the owners to open the dining room.
“Takeout was a hit, but people want more,” Patel said. “People were tapping at our door wanting to know when we’d be open for dining. That was when we opened for takeout, they were ready for us to do dining. We all started talking about. The bills were starting to come in more than before. We looked at the bar and we needed to make money on it. We looked at the chairs and the tables. Somehow we had to pay for it. That’s when we all made that decision. There’s a safe way of doing it. Yes, we are at 50 percent occupancy. But we do it with reserve seating. That way we can have some control over how many guests come in. We can stagger them rather than have them all come in at the same time. I think that definitely helped. People feel comfortable with the procedures we take and have everyone do.”
“We do this for the safety of ourselves, our staff,” Singh said. “We want to ensure to our customers that this is a safe environment. So people will come back. Everything is cleaned. Employees sanitize and disinfect surface areas, tables. It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary for the safety of our employees. They have families they go home to.”
Even with having the dining room open, Nomad has a minimal staff of four employees. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, the restaurant would have had 22 full- and part-time workers.
“And now we’ve got partners coming in,” Patel said. “They thought they were going to be silent partners, but they’re coming in and helping out. Rolling up their sleeves and helping us out on the weekends.”
“On top of their full-time jobs,” Singh added.
Patel and Singh said the bond between the four business partners has only grown stronger, and they keep in touch more.
“We know it’s hard, challenging and tough,” Singh said. “None of them have turned around and said, “Hey, you know, are we going to get a check?” They turn around and say, “Hey, you want us to come in and help you out?” Also, our friendship outside of this is pretty strong. The support system has been there.”
“Were there sleepless nights?” Patel asked. “Hell yeah. Were there frustrations and yelling with spouses? Hell yeah. But that comes with the territory. It’s just frustrations and everything else. But, you gotta pick up and move on. Play the cards you’re dealt.”
For all the stress and frustrations that have come with having to open a restaurant during a pandemic because it was the only way to keep the business afloat, Patel said he is optimistic about the future of Nomad, and that optimism is rooted in the response from customers.
“The feedback we’re getting when they’re leaving through the door and they’re thankful and showing us appreciation. They tell us they’re rooting for us. They get it. The fact that they’re supporting us. Hillsborough’s been great, but we’re seeing people from Graham and Burlington and Raleigh. They’re making the drive to come support us. They loved our story, they love our concept and they’re here for us,” he said.
That feeling of looking out for each other is shared by neighboring businesses in downtown Hillsborough. For example, customers at Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew enjoying drinks outside can order and be served food from Nomad.
“The camaraderie in the area has definitely gotten stronger here on King Street,” Patel said. “Our menus are over there (at Yonder). We’re even doing events with them, with live music. And we’re hoping the Colonial Inn will draw in even more foot traffic.”
“It is the place to be,” Singh says of King Street. “The community support here is just incredible. Not just the neighboring businesses, but in general. People coming out and supporting us. Our reward is them coming in excited and walking away with smiles on their faces. And thanking us for an incredible experience.”
Nomad is now adjusting and adding to its business hours. The plan is to be open Wednesday and Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. A Saturday brunch that begins at noon could soon be added.
“We’re excited,” Patel said. “Ideally we’d be open six days. But we don’t want to commit ourselves to all six. We want to gradually increase.”
Patel, Singh and their business partners also own and operate the restaurant Viceroy, which is in Durham. The concept there is better geared for takeout and has held its own during the pandemic.
“We have a resilient team,” Singh said. “We’re always here together and pushing forward.”
“If there’s doubt, we’ve got other team members that will pick you up and move you forward,” Patel added. “That definitely helps. When you have the optimist and positive team that’s full of energy, you can only move forward.”
Nomad is at 122 W. King St. in downtown Hillsborough in the former Osbunn Theater.