Devin McDaniel could have grabbed anything from her closet to put on the day she met me, but I couldn’t ignore the irony behind her choice: a Bob’s Burgers T-shirt. The animated FOX TV show about a family who runs a hamburger restaurant is a lot like McDaniel’s day-to-day as owner of Derita Dairy Bar & Grill in north Charlotte.
“It’s small, you know your people, it’s in the community, and like Bob, I fly by the seat of my pants, so I can relate,” McDaniel said, laughing.
We met on the morning of Sept. 29, just as McDaniel was getting ready to open for the day. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and tucked under a Black Power ball cap that, in shading her eyes, illuminated her smile.
We had time to chat, as she was waiting for her chef to show up before she could begin serving anyone — just a new restaurant owner flying by the seat of her pants.
Despite these daily stresses, considering McDaniel’s success during her short time running Derita Dairy Bar, she has a lot to smile about.
The restaurant is located on West Sugar Creek Road, the corridor that runs through the heart of the historic Derita neighborhood, an old farming village turned suburb that has thus far not seen the same rate of development as other north Charlotte neighborhoods like NoDa and University City.
When driving on West Sugar Creek, the old brick facades of Derita seem to appear out of nowhere, standing opposite the old railroad tracks that once made the neighborhood a central trade post for farmers throughout Mecklenburg County.
McDaniel and her business partner Jared Mackey purchased Derita Dairy Bar & Grill, a long-running and unassuming carry-out spot located across from the old Puckett’s Farm Equipment bar, in 2019. She admits it was a bit of a risk, as her experience is in marketing and advertising and she “didn’t know how to restaurant.”
Despite that risk, and an unforeseen pandemic clamping down on the restaurant scene the following spring, McDaniel reopened Derita Dairy Bar on Juneteenth 2020.
Her takeover turned out to be a big hit, not only in Derita, but with foodies from all over Charlotte, be they influencers or simply hungry Charlotteans.
McDaniel’s marketing expertise played a role in that, as her social media posts showcasing the burgers, crab fries, pineapple lemonade and ice cream sundaes helped boost Derita Dairy Bar’s platforms to reach a larger audience.
“People were home, they were looking at their Instagrams and they found us,” McDaniel said.
And with Derita Dairy Bar’s walk-up, carry-out service seemingly designed for the restrictions put in place to curb the pandemic, the staff stood ready to serve the masses.
Trial and error
Although originally from Charlotte, McDaniel left the Queen City to study advertising at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After college, she worked in marketing for construction companies, then started her own consulting firm, Kamet Marketing Solutions. Kamet helps new businesses, small businesses and nonprofits find the audience that fits their unique identity and produces content that meets their objectives.
Every time McDaniel takes on a new client, it’s like taking a crash course in their industry, she said. Derita Dairy Bar & Grill was not much different.
Luckily, the restaurant’s walk-up window made it naturally COVID-friendly, so McDaniel didn’t have to make changes to abide by social distancing or capacity restrictions. Instead, she said the pandemic allowed her the opportunity to slow down and “learn how to restaurant” – to go through that trial-and-error period any first-time business owner will experience at her own pace.
“It was the little things. Like, we really wanted to do hand-dipped corn dogs, but that didn’t make the cut because our fryer wasn’t deep enough,” McDaniel said. “You have to have a special fryer. Not a lot of people know that.”
The menu at Derita Dairy Bar & Grill is similar to the previous owner’s, but with some new options and all fresh ingredients instead of frozen. Burgers come in single, double or triple patties and can be customized with sauces and toppings. There are also wings, hand-breaded chicken, hot dogs, kielbasa, salads, nachos and fries that come in an array of styles: taco, buffalo chicken, Philly, chili cheese, cheddar bacon ranch, etc.
McDaniel uses all-dairy ice cream to make her soft serve, creating over a dozen flavors of milkshakes and sundaes, like Chockanda Forever – chocolate ice cream with fudge brownies and Oreos, topped with whipped cream and Cocoa Pebbles.
Customers love Derita Dairy Bar’s signature pineapple lemonade, as well as the “KiKi Palmer” (pineapple lemonade and sweet tea), but the restaurant’s top seller in the food category is their crab fries, which come with fresh crab meat, grilled peppers and onions and their seafood aioli sauce. It’s $15 for a small and $20 for a large.
“It’s a little bit of luxury you can have in the middle of the day,” McDaniel said.
Rising to the challenge
When McDaniel took over Derita Dairy Bar, she tried to hold onto the previous owner’s prices as long as she could, but she was beginning to drown. Ingredient and supply shortages due to the pandemic forced ordering costs to go up and quantities to change.
The styrofoam cups she uses for milkshakes have been hard to come by, and she now pays $40 for a case of ketchup packets that were once $16 – ketchup packets she hands to customers for free.
She had to slightly increase her prices to stay in business, but purposely kept some menu items low so the community members who have known Derita Dairy Bar for years wouldn’t feel priced out. Customers can still get a grilled cheese for $3, a hot dog with toppings for $3.50, a BLT for $4.50, and a fried bologna sandwich for $5.
“As the prices go up, we can still make sure you’re eating well,” McDaniel said. “We didn’t want to alienate the community.”
Since McDaniel has only ever owned a restaurant in a pandemic, she doesn’t know what it’s like to not have to constantly pivot to avoid a crisis – whether that’s a labor shortage causing staffing issues or shipping delays affecting her ability to make her most popular items.
She described herself as easy-going and a fast thinker. More than once, she’s had to make menu changes on the fly, but because her customers trust her, she’s able to keep them coming back.
“My go-to saying is, ‘I would never sell you something wack,’” McDaniel said. “I hate telling people at the window what we don’t have. I hate disappointment. Instead, I’ll say, ‘Sorry, we’re all out of crab, but we have a delicious shrimp fry.’”
‘This is me’
Through social media marketing and implementing online ordering, McDaniel has brought Derita Dairy Bar into modern times and met customers where they are: on their phones. She grew the business’s Instagram from scratch to over 4,600 followers by reaching out to local food bloggers and social media influencers and inviting them to stop by.
Users like @dailyspecialclt, @cltblackowned, @eatblkclt and @cltdesserts helped promote Derita Dairy Bar during the pandemic by sharing pictures of their food on Instagram and inspiring their followers to visit.
One of the biggest boosts for the business was when Wynee Bermudez, aka @wyneesworld, posted a video of Derita Dairy Bar’s Double-It Burger with crab fries on TikTok. Shortly after, tons of people came and ordered the exact same thing.
When she bought the unpretentious burger joint, McDaniel didn’t think she would be working there full-time, but she’s seen how her energy and social skills at the window and on social media are helping build relationships in the community, and that’s rewarding work, she said.
“As far as marketing, I see the fruits of my labor more when they say, ‘I saw you on Instagram,’ or I get recognized at the grocery store,” McDaniel said. “I never got that when I worked with construction companies.”
And yet owning a restaurant is also tiring and stressful because, at the end of the day, all the responsibility falls on you, she said. She stays motivated by her desire to set a good example for her 11-year-old daughter, Marley.
“That stress keeps you motivated,” McDaniel said. “You wake up early and you make sure things are done right because you have that stress.”
She imagines that’s probably how Bob Belcher from Bob’s Burgers feels. Like Bob, she’s proud of her restaurant and loves to talk about it to anyone who will listen. Sometimes that embarrasses her daughter. She thinks Bob would be able to relate that, too.
“This restaurant, it came from my hands. I built this,” McDaniel said. “I mean, it was already here, but I birthed it. This is me.”