In an unprecedented time of a global pandemic, it is difficult to discern the “right” way to go about things. It can feel like navigating a maze in the dark without an exit and with too many Minotaurs. Or the unwritten “Hunger Games” book where everyone is volunteered as tribute. Or the fifth act of “Hamlet” on repeat.
Small business owners have it especially tough. The number of factors to consider at any given moment is staggering. If you keep your employees on, will they make enough money to survive? And if you don’t, will unemployment save them? Will there be space for you as the world negotiates a new normal? That’s barely scratching the surface.
Many Wilmington entrepreneurs, while trying to stay afloat (or find their sea legs), are still finding ways to give back to the community however they can. Jud Watkins, owner-operator of Wrightsville Beach Brewery, and Mike Barlas, owner-operator of Flytrap Brewing, are two making a difference while things are different.
Watkins is part of a team operating a food truck at various nonprofits around town, which donates 100% of all meals. They also give away hand sanitizer and toilet paper when they can. The truck is run by Chef Stephen Burkett, Cathy Meriam and Watkins himself.
“The food truck started off like our ‘grocery’ business: as a way to help me furlough fewer people,” he explains. “While COVID-19 is totally unprecedented, I can’t help but see parallels to times after a hurricane. It’s not fun for anybody, but it’s not hard to look around a little bit and realize some in our community have it worse off than others.”
Watkins turned his empathy into action. On Wednesdays the truck parks at the Community Boys & Girls Club to serve a minimum of 100 meals to the community. Thursdays are reserved for Brigade Boys and Girls Club. On Saturdays, the truck goes where they’re needed most. Watkins says they’ve worked with the UNCW Latinx Alliance to figure out where services are most essential.
“For the first three weeks, we just came out of pocket for the meals, so the most affordable way to do this was to shop the specials with [the food vendors we use at the brewery],” Watkins says. “Recently, we have been fortunate enough to see a few friends step up and ‘sponsor’ a food-truck outing. Donations have ranged from $50 to one family donating their entire stimulus check!”
On deciding where to go, first they reached out to nonprofit partners they worked with in the past. They set up a video conference call with local nonprofit leaders.
“Now, we are trying to hit the parts of the community that need the most help,” Watkins says. “We typically focus on kids with our nonprofit giving but given the unusual times, we wouldn’t restrict our meals to just kids at this time.”
They initially intended for the truck to operate like a regular business. But serendipity and ingenuity stepped in and necessitated it to be much more. They have just finished renovating the food truck.
“Maybe it’s good timing, maybe it’s comically bad timing,” says Watkins, laughing. “Either way, it’s a fun way to break in the truck. When we wrap up the donation program we hope to move into a more traditional food-truck model.”
Meanwhile, in the Brooklyn Arts District, Mike Barlas and his team at Flytrap Brewing have a T-shirt fundraiser underway. The shirts feature a design by Flytrap bartender and local artist Jarred Weinstein, with the phrase “Coming together to support, comfort and persevere.” They are currently available for pre-order. It was truly an effort of the brewery’s entire team.
“This idea was brought up in a team brainstorming session, then we were approached by Creo Print Co,” Barlas says. “It seemed to kind of just unfold.”
Proceeds from the shirts will go to Family Promise of Lower Cape Fear. The organization is dedicated to serving families who have been victims of domestic violence or homelessness. “Even with revenue slowed to a trickle, we wanted to find a way to continue to support our local community,” Barlas tells. “It was extremely important to ensure that any donation stayed local.”
Family Promise hones in on homelessness. “Having a secure home is always vital, but the pandemic adds another layer of importance to having a safe place for your family,” Barlas adds.
When it came to the design, Barlas left it completely up to his bartender. Weinstein drafted some loose concepts for the team to design upon unanimously.
“The concept behind the design was to imply how the support of our community will get us all through these tough times,” Weinstein explains.
Marisa Dransoff, another Flytrap bartender, crafted the slogan on the back. Once Flytrap’s lead bartender, Makenzie Schenck said “persevere,” everything fell into place. “[Persevere is] stated on the Wilmington flag, so I went from there,” Dransoff says.
“It felt natural because those sentiments of strength in unity, comfort and perseverance really reflect the [sense of] community people feel when they’re at Flytrap Brewing on a day-to-day basis.”
Local print shop Creo Print Company will produce the shirts at a reduced rate so that Flytrap can maximize donations made to Family Promise.
“The current state of things is so unfamiliar and dynamic,” Barlas adds. “We believe communication and working together will give us the best chance of surviving as a business while operating in the safest possible ways.