Note: The coronavirus forced all of us to change our lives, often in dramatic ways. This article is part of a series about the people who pivoted in 2020.
From its unassuming brick building on Southeast Broad Street, Curt’s Cucina was one of Southern Pines’ destination restaurants.
Curt Shelvey had developed a following over the years to the point that his sit-down restaurant was reservation only. So what does a successful restaurateur do when a global pandemic shuts down indoor dining indefinitely?
That was the question facing all local eateries, but especially the number of higher end fine dining restaurants ahead of the busy spring golf tourism season. Governor Roy Cooper’s order closing restaurants and bars hit at 5 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, one of the busiest nights of the year. Overnight, larders and bars laden with food and alcohol were going unconsumed.
It looked like last call for a number of restaurant and bar owners.
We know now that, keeping on skeleton crews and living off the kindness of loyal customers, local restaurants skimmed by on take-out, curbside pickup and delivery.
And Shelvey? He reimagined and reinvented.
He rebranded his restaurant from fine Italian cuisine to Grinders and Gravy, which focuses on hot sub sandwiches.
“During the COVID, I thought, ‘What can I do that will be affordable for everybody? I thought I could take and do my grinders and I started to expand on those ideas, and there are about 25 to 30 different ones.
“So I started to switch over to Grinders and Gravy, and I came up with the idea and started working on the menu during the COVID to try and stay ahead of the ball.”
The grinders, which average between $10 to $14, are a reboot from the original bar menu at Curt’s Cucina when it opened in 2011, and also the idea of a food truck that Curt was brainstorming long before shutdowns and quarantines were a common phrase in conversation.
“I didn’t plan any of this. There was a concept of me to have a food truck down the road,” he said. “My goal was to have a food truck that does special events.
“When the COVID hit, I wasn’t doing takeout. We were by reservation only so that was quite a punch in the gut. We had to flip, which we did, and it took off like gangbusters.”
Shelvey said that his food truck concept is starting to come together for future special events in the area.
“In doing this, it was survival first and foremost. I knew if I stayed doing what I was doing at Curt’s Cucina, it wasn’t generating enough revenue to run that business,” he said.
Outdoor tables, lights and fans now surround the perimeter of the restaurant since its reopening as Grinders and Gravy on July 11. Those additions are there to stay, even after the customers are allowed back inside the restaurant when restrictions start to ease.
“We have tried to make the outside as appealing as we can,” Shelvey said. “That will always be there now. I will remain with that outside seating.”
The lofty expectations still remained from regular customers when Grinders and Gravy opened up, and Shelvey said the majority have continued to come back.
“I’ve had a lot of regulars that are like, ‘As long as you’re cooking, we don’t care, we are coming to eat,’” he said. “There’s a lot of folks that miss it, and I tell them I miss it too.”
Shelvey’s rebrand is also the idea of what he thinks restaurants will look like going forward, with more ordering at the counter and taking a seat to wait on the food seeming to be the trend. To him, the change was the hardest decision that he ever had to make.
“I just see dining changing. Not just here, but everywhere.” he said. “I’m not going anywhere, but I knew if I didn’t change I wouldn’t be here.
“That was a leap of faith that I was willing to have to say that this is the future.”