Wendell, N.C. restaurant struggles to find balance after mask mandates end

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Wendell restaurant Farmers & Merchants was planning its grand opening for the early months of 2020, but COVID-19 had different plans. Months were spent refurbishing the tired old building in downtown Wendell into a greatly anticipated eating and drinking establishment. When the global pandemic that shut down the state was declared on March 11, owners Brad Ellis and Sigurd Westerlund were surprised to find the Metro Raleigh restaurant patrons would travel almost anywhere to experience eating out again. 

In the small metropolis of Wendell, the enforcement of the mask mandates was not as strict as those in Raleigh. Because of the looser restrictions, Ellis and Westerlund decided to continue with the opening in June 2020. In hindsight,  Westerlund said they could have never predicted the success. 

“We also could not have pictured the effects of the city (Raleigh) opening back up,” Westerland said. 

Farmers & Merchants was able to keep its doors open during the pandemic, but as mandates lifted within Raleigh, residents have started to retreat back to the city rather than spend time in the suburbs. 

Nights that traditionally led to a full house; now host only a few tables. Bartender Catherine Aughenbaugh said that things haven’t been the same since Raleigh was declared fully open in the last couple of weeks. 

“If I am being honest with you, I don’t think masks were ever upheld in the city of Wendell,” said Aughenbaugh, “With the bigger city opening back up again, we are struggling to compete with the city of Raleigh for business. People just aren’t making the drive like they used to.” 

In June 2020, restaurants across the United States found themselves struggling with business as in-person dining experiences were down 82%. Many states required restaurants to close in-person service completely and only offer pick-up or delivery if certain guidelines could be met. A year later, the industry is only down 25% of the usual in-person dining experiences in comparison to pre-COVID-19 according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Restaurants that opened during COVID-19 in areas that had soft mask mandates, such as Farmers & Merchants, now find themselves competing with big-name restaurants in the city of Raleigh once again. Through this, however, Ellis is optimistic. 

 “Regardless of COVID-19 mandates shifting our business, the experience stays the same,” Ellis said. “People continue to come in for the small-town essence that larger restaurants in Raleigh simply cannot provide.” 

Farmers & Merchants was a beacon for people during the dark times of the pandemic according to Aughenbaugh. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, from March through September of 2020, sales at eating and drinking establishments plunged 26.9% to $327.6 billion, compared with $448.1 billion during the same period in 2019 as stated in the Wall Street Journal.  It was during this time that Farmers & Merchants saw an increase in traffic every month. 

The demand was there for a dining experience where families and friends alike could gather according to Ellis. The lack of a strict mask mandate in Wendell brought in business from the city that possibly would never have occurred if not due to the pandemic driving people from the city. 

Farmers & Merchants supplied that experience and plan on doing so for the foreseeable future. Westerlund knew ever since renovating the Save & Loans building, they had something special. 

 “I still feel that we bring that aspect to the table every time we serve our guests regardless of the pandemic,” Westerlund said. 

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