The Wooden Nickel, a popular and long-time establishment on Churton Street in downtown Hillsborough, is considering expanding into downtown Mebane.
Matt Fox, who owns the Nickel, confirmed that another restaurant in the neighboring town is a possibility, and the space that formerly housed Dick & Jane’s Tapas & Martini Bar on Clay Street is under consideration.
“There’s interest in Mebane, yes, we’re still exploring what’s going to happen there, if anything,” Fox said. We’ve been interested in Mebane for a long time and wanted to do something there, but we just haven’t really found the right spot.”
He also said staffing shortages and supply chain issues — like the ones he’s been experiencing at the Wooden Nickel in Hillsborough — are preventing him from pulling the trigger on expansion plans just yet, meaning any word that he's already set to open another restaurant in Mebane is just speculation at this point.
“Our concerns now are whether we’re going to be able to find people to work there when and if we do it. So we’re still kind of feeling it out,” he said, adding that it’s not the first time he’s considered expanding into another city. “We’ve looked at some spots in Durham, we’ve looked at some spots in Chapel Hill, and really, I’ve always thought that what we do and who we are fits better going into Mebane rather than the bigger towns.”
Fox said he’s more comfortable with Mebane’s small-town atmosphere and walkable downtown area.
The Wooden Nickel and its adjoining space have gone through a couple of shape shifts during the pandemic. The James Pharmacy, a casual restaurant that featured a seafood-heavy menu, closed during the earlier days of Covid-19.
“It wasn’t a concept that was going to translate or shift to to-go food very easily,” Fox said. “It was fairly new, and had only been open for about a year. It just didn’t have what it needed to survive what was going on.”
The former James Pharmacy space is now home to the Wooden Nickel Bake Shop, which is operated by Kim Mayer, who, for a long time, has been the pastry chef for the Wooden Nickel.
“She’s wanted her own spot for quite a while, the pandemic hit and we closed the James Pharmacy. It was kind of the perfect opportunity to give her a space to do her own thing, but it’s still operating under the Wooden Nickel umbrella,” he said. “I think she wishes she could be open more but finding people to help has been a challenge.”
Staffing shortages is an issue for many small businesses in Hillsborough, and the Wooden Nickel has not been immune. The restaurant, which has been open since 2003, normally has between 30 to 35 employees on staff. Now, though, its employee count is in the low 20s.
“It’s been incredibly challenging just getting through a week here right now with the lack of staff and everything else,” Fox said. “This week, we have to close on Wednesday because we just don’t have people that can work.”
Last year, when restaurants were forced to adjust their business models, the Wooden Nickel deftly shifted to family meals, call-in and to-go service. With one of the largest outdoor dining spaces in downtown, business at the Nickel picked up and has remained brisk with more people wanting to get out to eat. Even as the Delta Variant has driven down indoor dining, Fox said the outside seating has remained full and to-go orders have picked up.
“It’s funny how this has become that spot that everyone knows,” Fox said. “We’ve been able to stick around for a long time, and I’ve always had such a great team that’s kind of been the face of this place. The bartenders and the cooks and everybody else. It’s been special.”