Despite everything he’s been through over the last month, Greg Collier, co-owner of the new Camp North End eatery Leah & Louise, can’t imagine he’ll ever have as trying a time as he did in 2014.
It was early that year that Greg and his wife Subrina had each welcomed their respective parents to live with them, putting them in a situation that would make for a great sitcom in a fictional world, but only added to the stress and tension of the tragedy that was to come. One Monday morning in August, Greg and Subrina woke up to find that their first restaurant, The Yolk in Rock Hill, had burned down overnight. In November, Greg’s youngest sister passed away unexpectedly.
“It was OK when I was going to work, we had things to do,” Collier recalls of that time six years ago, living in a full house. “Then the restaurant burned down in August. So we don’t have the money coming down, we’re not able to do the things that we love to do and we’re so passionate about. It’s kind of like now. We didn’t have to stay in the house, but I was so depressed, I didn’t have nothing else to do, I just stayed in my room every day.”
Fast forward to Tuesday, March 17, 2020, when the Colliers attended a meeting with management at Camp North End, where their new restaurant Leah & Louise was set to open on March 20. At a media preview night on the previous Friday, journalists and bloggers showed up at staggered times and sat away from one another, enjoying a slew of Greg’s dishes like Dirty Grits, Black Sheep smoked lamb ribs, Mud Island catfish stew and other Southern menu items.
At the March 17 meeting, as COVID-19 measures slowly clamped down on the city, the Colliers discussed their plan to open Leah & Louise slowly, with just 12 reservations each hour. Then as they wrapped up the meeting, Gov. Cooper announced that all restaurants and bars would need to shut down in a couple of days.
Greg remembers it as a matter-of-fact realization: “It was like, ‘Alright well, I guess we’re gonna do carryout.’”
Changes at Leah & Louise
Greg and Subrina began offering curbside pick-up that weekend. Then on April 14, they rolled out a lunch menu, which they hadn’t planned on offering up until June. Soon, they’ll introduce a supper-style dinner menu on weekends.
“We were going to roll that Sunday supper-style menu out in September when it got back cold,” Greg said, “but the situation calls for people wanting comfort food. People want smoked chicken, grilled fish, nothing crazy, so we’re going to expand our menu with that.”
It’s hard enough to open a restaurant and build momentum in normal times, but now and Greg and Subrina are doing so in the midst of a pandemic that will change the way society operates as a whole. And yet, the Colliers have continued to handle things as they come, each of them looking back on the tough times they went through in 2014 and, before that, their hardscrabble childhoods as proof that they can face any and all adversity together.
“This is tough, we’ve never seen anything like this before, but Subrina and I, we’re both from Memphis, not from the worst upbringing, but we’ve both had to navigate some things that other people in general don’t have to navigate — let alone people who end up opening a restaurant,” Greg said. “So we kind of handled this like that. We take it day by day, try our best to be good to folks and do right by people.”
That means giving back, even in these uncertain times. Greg’s Uptown Yolk restaurant has provided free breakfasts for people in need and participated in a Frontline Foods charity dinner for Novant Health employees in Huntersville.
As for the new restaurant, priorities have shifted. Leah & Louise was meant to be a throwback to Memphis juke joints, old-school Southern Black-owned establishments where plantation workers and sharecroppers would get together to blow off steam, play music, drink and eat. The atmosphere was meant to play a big role in the restaurant’s vibe.
Being forced to the curb as a takeout restaurant, however, has delayed the opportunity to cultivate that vibe. No worries, said Greg in his typical pragmatic style, as this now gives him a chance to get back to what’s most important: the food — whether it’s placed carefully on a plate or put in a to-go box.
“The thing for me that’s always been important is stuff tasting great,” he said. “You got some chefs that kind of focus on the pretty a little more than they focus on the flavor. The pretty is the last thing I’m thinking about. I spend a whole lot of time on making stuff taste good or making stuff resonate. Now more than ever … we have to give people what they want.
“We don’t have the opportunity to give people interesting food or thought-provoking food, we just gotta give people comfort,” he continued. “Telling my story through food is very important, so not being able to tell that story is just like, ‘Hey, go back to cooking the best food you can cook,’ and I think that’s probably the biggest change.”
A Place to Unwind
A 15-mile drive southwest from Leah & Louise, at the corner of Main and Dover streets in Pineville, sits a new restaurant with a familiar name.
Unwind Tea & Coffee House celebrated its fifth anniversary in Pineville’s historic downtown area in April. At the end of 2019, owner and operator Wendy Favreau decided to mark that milestone by chasing her dream, moving two doors down from the original 700-square-foot location into a corner space more than four times that size and expanding her little coffee shop into a cafe.
In her half-decade on Main Street, she saw a need that wasn’t being met in the downtown area, despite multiple tries.
“I have seen a few restaurants in the space that we’re in come and go, and I feel as though I’ve gotten a good idea of what is needed down here,” Favreau told Queen City Nerve.
She moved over to the new location and put together a low-key menu that would cater to downtown shoppers and those looking for eats after trips to Pintville next door: different styles of avocado toasts in the morning; flatbreads, salads and sandwiches for lunch; and bar bites at night, including a warm pretzel with housemade pimento cheese.
The full scope of Favreau’s dream, however, would be put on hold. Her final inspection was approved on March 23. She opened on March 24, a week after restaurants were ordered to serve takeout only and the same day that residents were ordered to stay at home.
It was clear what was coming long before then, she said, as regular Unwind customers came in to check out the new space.
“We had a lot of our regulars come in and pretty much everyone that was coming in was talking about it and started talking about how the stay-at-home order was coming,” she said. “It was pretty obvious that first week that things were going to change drastically.”
When One Door Closes…
Favreau took things in stride and quickly adapted. On the Dover Street side of her old brick building was a service window going directly to the kitchen. It had long ago been sealed shut and painted over, but Favreau saw an opportunity.
“I was like, ‘I’m sure I can get that window open.’ I started working on it with a razor blade,” she said.
She was eventually able to open the window for walk-up service.
“It was good to get that window open and cleaned up and in use, and ever since the day we started using it, people absolutely love it,” she said. “We’ve got more and more foot traffic with people walking their dogs and things, so it’s been great.”
Despite her adaptations, the downtown area she’s come to love as a small-business owner still looks desolate on a daily basis. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, few cars were passing through what is supposed to be the most busy street in town.
“It’s scary, to be honest,” she said. “We always had a lot of foot traffic. There is still a good bit of the local people walking their dogs and running and things like that, but we would always have a lot of people come and park and walk up and down Main Street shopping, and they would stop to get a coffee or something to eat, and we don’t have that anymore. So it’s pretty quiet and lonely. It’s a little scary to see.”
And still, Favreau remains optimistic that her deferred dream will eventually come to fruition. She has plans to expand the menu with more sandwiches and salads when she’s finally allowed to open her dining room, but until then, she’ll continue to serve her neighbors as they need her.
“As things have changed, what I’ve seen is that we are part of a normalcy for everything. Quite a few people have said that still being able to come and get their coffee was a part of normal life that they could maintain,” she said.
As with the Colliers at Leah & Louise, Favreau knows that the key is in not giving up.
“I’m a very optimistic person to begin with and I believe that when you hold the vision in your mind it actually does come true. So I’m holding the vision with great hope that it actually does end up the way we worked so hard to get to.”