PITTSBORO — More than six months into the coronavirus pandemic, businesses at The Plant, home of the Chatham Beverage District on Lorax Lane east of downtown, are surviving through a combination of good fortune and business acumen.
“We kind of lucked out with the pandemic,” said Tami Schwerin, the co-owner of the complex and founder of Abundance NC, The Plant’s resident non-profit advocacy group. “What sets us apart is we have 17 acres where people can come socially distance.”
The Plant’s longstanding endorsement of outdoor gathering made social distancing easy to accommodate and enforce.
“We’ve got all this room to stretch out,” said Lyle Estill, Schwerin’s husband and The Plant’s other co-owner. He runs Fair Game Beverage, a distillery, bottle shop and tasting room. Fair Game Beverage also stocks a selection of N.C. specialty food products.
“We’re accidentally on fire,” Estill said. “We’re a tasting room, not a bar, so we could open while other liquor places couldn’t.”
The shop’s fortuitous classification has meant increased patronage at a time when many similar businesses are shuttering. Bottles have been flying off the shelves, Estill said. He is struggling to produce liquor fast enough to meet demand.
“Sure, at first we kind of fell off a cliff,” he said, “but now we’re booming.”
Schwerin’s non-profit has also thrived in spite of the pandemic. Abundance includes in its mission a commitment to “promote local community resilience.” Schwerin feels that charge is more important now than ever.
“People have been dying without loved ones,” she said. “We want to address that and help with the grieving.”
Schwerin is no stranger to grief. She and Estill have been assiduous students of the subject since their oldest son, Zafer, died four years ago at age 19.
“In 2016, he died in Colorado,” Schwerin said, “He’d been smoking heroin, and we had no idea.”
From her studies was born Death Faire, an annual celebration and remembrance of the dead (which this year falls on Halloween).
“Friends said I was nuts for planning it,” she said. “Then 600 people showed up in the first year.”
It is unclear how many will attend this year, but Schwerin believes Death Faire 2020 will be instrumental in helping the Chatham County community heal from tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic.
While Abundance and Fair Game Beverage have flourished in recent months, many of The Plant’s tenants have not seen their businesses fare so well.
The Starrs are among them.
“Right after we got it going all this happened,” said Becky Starr, who owns Starrlight Mead with her husband, Ben. “We were just picking up when COVID hit.”
The couple ran their business for eight years out of Chatham Mills in Pittsboro. They moved into a larger space at The Plant two years ago.
Despite its relative newness, Starrlight is a veteran of the mead industry. When they opened their doors 10 years ago, the Starrs owned one of just 60 meaderies in the country. Now, they say, there are more than 500.
Still, mead — an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey — remains a niche beverage. Many of the meadery’s visitors have never tried mead and they are reticent to order a full pour. In the past, the Starrs bypassed this quandary with tastings. But pandemic restrictions have hampered the meadery’s ability to operate as usual.
“We normally do tastings; they’re a good way to show people the range of what we do,” Starr said. “But it takes about 20 minutes and that’s 20 minutes in front of someone without a mask on. So, we just started doing flights instead to give people a chance to try things more safely.”
Every year, on the fourth Saturday in September, Starrlight Mead hosts Mead Fest. The festival turns out upwards of a thousand attendees from Chatham County and surrounding areas. Some mead enthusiasts travel from long distances to attend the event. The festival is a major source of revenue for all The Plant’s businesses and the Chatham County craftspeople who set up booths.
For Starrlight Mead, however, the event is particularly crucial. This year, however, Mead Fest has been canceled.
“It is with much regret that we decide to cancel September’s Mead Fest,” an announcement on the meadery’s website read. “We put the decision off, in hopes that things would improve with COVID-19, but that does not look like it’s going to happen in the next two months.”
Sacrificing Mead Fest only compounds Starrlight Mead’s faltering income.
“In April we made 50% of last year,” Starr said. “Now we’re at maybe 80%, but with loss of Mead Fest, it’s hard.”
Starrlight Mead is not the only new occupant at The Plant to suffer from a slowed economy. Kristin Bulpitt of Copeland Springs Farm and Kitchen opened her restaurant shortly before the pandemic’s onset.
“The whole year has been hard for me,” Bulpitt said, “but especially since the pandemic, it’s been a wild ride.”
Bulpitt is a farmer; she grows 90% of the food her restaurant serves in a series of fields on The Plant’s campus. Any ingredients she does not produce herself, such as flour and cheese, she sources from other local farms.
“I’m exhausted,” Bulpitt said, “but I’m so grateful that we’re still open and doing OK. It’s so hard to know how to plan when you don’t know what’s next. We’re still trying to figure out how to stay relevant and interesting.”
In the past, Bulpitt has supplemented the kitchen’s revenue by selling crops at two local farmers’ markets. Early in the pandemic, they closed down. To stay solvent, Bulpitt adjusted her business model to expand her Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and offer family meals for pick up.
“We’re trying to offer more family-style meals since kids are back in school and it’s hard for some to prepare meals,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Bulpitt’s CSA included 35 families. It has grown to 50 participants, and she suspects there is demand for 100.
“I love the CSA because I know who’s getting my food,” she said.
On Aug. 1, Carolina Hemp Tours celebrated one year in operation at The Plant. Its owners, Kalim and Tranise Hasan, first developed interest in hemp when Tranise left the army after sustaining a number of injuries. She discovered that CBD products helped manage her chronic pain. The Hasans found their niche hosting tours of North Carolinas many hemp farms. They are “the only company in N.C. agritourism that’s cannabis specific,” Kalim said.
But coronavirus has derailed the industry.
“COVID hit us really hard,” Kalim said. “It hit Carolina Hemp Tours extremely hard. We couldn’t do tours at all. Now we can if they drive in personal cars, but most people don’t want to do that.”
The Hasans have combated revenue loss by diversifying the company’s interests. Under the umbrella of Carolina Hemp Tours, they have selected new business ventures with perspicacity. Since the pandemic began, the couple has expanded the company’s offerings to include a coffee shop, a juice bar, electric bike rentals and axe throwing.
It’s creativity like that which have Estill and Schwerin excited about The Plant’s future.
“We have big plans,” Schwerin said. “We will probably build some Airbnbs that are art themed.” Construction of a new brewery on site is “in full swing right now,” and the complex is adding more bathrooms and outdoor sitting areas.
“More food is definitely on the list,” Estill added. “I’ve got all kinds of food entrepreneurs coming at me.”
Still, not all The Plant’s tenants are so optimistic.
“How people spend their money, what they buy and how they operate — a lot of that is changing,” said Aaron Puryear, the owner of The Plant’s original hemp store, Oak City Hemp. “The question really is: is it going to change for good?”
Bulpitt thinks it won’t.
“Human nature is to be social,” she said. “I think things will go back to normal once there’s a notion of safety. But whether we should or not I don’t know.”