The Storytelling Project

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The Storytelling Project

What I Learned While Telling Some Chapel Hill Stories

By Tom Griffen

Back in August 2016, the Town of Chapel Hill asked me to help them tell their story. I agreed, and since then I’ve been interviewing various people who are involved, one way or another, in the town’s economic development.

I wrote the stories of 29 total business owners, program directors, entrepreneurs, and boat-rockers, each of whom comprises an integral part of Chapel Hill’s eclectic community. But let’s be honest, 29 stories barely scratch the surface. To truly convey the collective narrative, there are countless more to tell.

The series began with an article on Chapel Hill’s Assistant Town Manager, Mary Jane Nirdlinger.  Rather than use my meager 700 words to discuss her job, accomplishments, or challenges, I instead wrote about her penchant for apple pie.

The assignment also put me in contact with the likes of Jude Samulski, a world-changing geneticist who founded Bamboo Therapeutics. His team was wildly impressive, and the way they spoke of him was heartfelt and endearing. Not what I expected in a scientific lab.

Meg McGurk, Director of the Downtown Partnership, told me her story of driving through Chapel Hill for the very first time. How she knew immediately that she’d never leave. And she didn’t.

Al Bowers from Al’s Burgers sat down with me for my shortest interview of all. But in our brief time together, he spoke of the importance of authenticity, of hustling. He expressed his sincere wish to see the town grow in a manageable way that doesn’t change the feel of local business. His parting comment insisted that we all can benefit from “spreading the love.” Here here.

Mediterranean Deli owner Jamil Kadoura’s story was stunning. Growing up in a refugee camp made an enormous and continuous impact on how he runs his business and interacts with the community.

Chapel Hill’s various start-up accelerators and entrepreneurial launch pads encompassed the most related stories within the series. I met the directors of LaUNCh, UNC Makerspace, CUBE, and 1789 Venture Lab, then told stories that weave them all together. I, for one, had no idea how rich the town was with organizations dedicated to innovation.

Easy to add Kidzu Children’s Museum to this innovative mix, too. Make no mistake, Kidzu is a dynamic organization that builds a foundation allowing children to feel comfortable with such collaborative outlets. And whether or not you have kids, pay Kidzu a visit. Their visual story alone is sure to enthrall. Their passion will go home with you.

Hudson Vaughn, Senior Director of the Jackson Center, gave me a history lesson on the Northside district then sent me on a walking tour of the neighborhood. Since then, my Chapel Hill experience has never been the same. Drop in and see for yourself. The walk should be mandatory for all Chapel Hill residents.

I learned that right under our noses, operating from a modest office in Greenbridge, is Caravela, a world-renowned coffee importer. Badi Bradley, a rooted North Carolinian, is Caravela’s North American Sales Director. His driving philosophy is to help everyone succeed without compromising his personal values. His business depends on genuine connections and uplifting fellow humans.

Did you know that Bruce Stone, founding owner of the Chelsea Theater, is also the author of a couple children’s books? Out of print, but worth a read.

I also sat down with Vimala Rajendran, owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, and got chills when she retold her story. As a young, single mother, struggling to feed her family, she never thought she’d open a thriving, community-supported restaurant. Her marketing adage is, in fact, her personal mission: Vimala cooks, everyone eats. And she means everyone.

Bandido’s owner, Tony Sustaita, told me about his mom, Nan, and how her generosity earned her a surprise inheritance—a barbecue joint in Atlanta. It was the seed that eventually set the stage for Tony’s landmark eatery across from UNC campus. It also paved the way for El Gigante, the rite of passage mega-burrito.

Dwight Basset sat down with me and talked so fast I had to put down my pen and record the conversation on my iPhone. There’s no denying Dwight’s feverish passion. He’s wildly confident in the town’s successful future. His fervor gets stuff done.

Shaw Sturton, ex-professional ballet dancer, infuses his business philosophy with the same sort of commitment and grace as was required in his previous career. His specialty café, Gray Squirrel (named for the official North Carolina mammal) started in Carrboro and became an exclamation point. He and his team will soon open a second location inside the Chapel Hill library. Ahhh, perfection.

I heard many stories, and all are worth telling again and again. They offered nitty gritty details about who Chapel Hill is. Between the lines they explained why this is such a desirable place, and why for many people it only took but one visit to convince them to put down roots.

I wish to thank the town for the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. To learn about their pasts, their businesses. I appreciate the chance to feel closer to a community I thought I already knew well.

Upon the project’s completion, I generated a word cloud to see what terms and ideas were most prevalent in articles. A few were obvious—words like Chapel Hill, UNC, and Franklin Street. But others showed up too, offering clues to concurrent melodies and themes. Words such as:

Community. Local. First.

People. Work. One.

Business. Make. Development.

Innovation. New. Together.

Sort of like a poem, isn’t it?