Chapel Hill’s Blue Dogwood food hall nabs new barbecue project and Smitty’s ice cream

Roughly one year ago, the Triangle’s great food hall bonanza began in Chapel Hill.

Blue Dogwood Public Market was the first piece of the national trend to open in the area, quickly followed by Raleigh’s Morgan Street Food Hall and Transfer Co. Food Hall, together adding dozens of new small food vendors in a spectrum of culinary styles.

Entering its second year, Blue Dogwood is adding a couple North Carolina basics: barbecue and ice cream. Joining this summer will be Big Belly Que from chef Garret Fleming, who was the chef at the acclaimed Motto restaurant in downtown Durham before it closed in July 2017.

The second new vendor is Burlington’s Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream, which is returning to Chapel Hill and opening a satellite location at the food hall’s bar.

Blue Dogwood opened last June at 306 W. Franklin St., with six vendors and a bar, tucked back on Franklin Street in a former grocery store building.

“I’m very pleased by our first year,” said Sarah Boak, who owns the food hall with her father, Jeff Boak. “Like any new business, it takes a little bit to find the best fit for vendors.”

Two original vendors Left Bank Butchery and Chocolatay Confections departed earlier this month, leaving some stalls vacant. Left Bank, a Saxapahaw butcher shop popular at the Carrboro farmer’s market, sold sandwiches, charcuterie and cuts of meat to take home. It is partnering with Durham Italian restaurant Mothers & Sons to open Alimentari at Left Bank, a small counter in Transfer Co. that will serve sandwiches, fresh pasta and serve as a butcher shop.

Chocolatay Confections sold chocolates and other sweets and will continue appearing at the Chapel Hill and Durham farmer’s markets and Bulldega in downtown Durham.

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Big Belly Que

With Big Belly Que, Fleming is tapping into North Carolina’s favorite food tradition, smoking pork exclusively over wood coals. He plans to smoke pork shoulders, sausage and turkey and sides like mac and cheese, collards and cole slaw, as well as regional offerings that usually don’t intersect with barbecue, like pickled shrimp.

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Chef Garret Fleming, pictured at Motto in Durham in 2017. Juli Leonard

“I wanted to include a few things that don’t necessarily belong in the barbecue aesthetic,” Fleming said in a phone interview with The News & Observer.

Barbecue has always been in his life, said Fleming, who a contestant on the 13th season of “Top Chef,” Bravo TV’s reality culinary competition. His parents met in grad school at UNC, lighting the fire for the family’s preference for pork cooked over coals.

“Their focus was always on doing things the historic way, the correct way, which was kind of ingrained in us from a very early age,” Fleming said. “Their affinity for North Carolina barbecue is why it happened this way. It’s a culturally important thing for this state.”

He will open Big Belly Que with Eleanor Lacy, his sister, and her husband, Austin Lacy.

Motto’s food and Fleming’s menu were acclaimed in downtown Durham, but he said the large space made it hard to get enough diners through the door. But he served barbecue on Sundays at the restaurant after cooking all night. When it closed, he remained in the Triangle

“You feel a little crazy after staying up all night cooking, but somehow it’s comforting,” Fleming said.

The Bar at Blue Dogwood serves a rotating selection of half a dozen North Carolina beers plus a couple of ciders on tap. They focus on smaller breweries that are non-distributed or self-distributed, so you can expect an eclectic selection. Juli Leonard

Smitty’s ice cream

Smitty’s is adding a few of its flavors to the food hall’s bar, as well as fresh waffle cones, by next month. Co-owner Amy Nakhle said the Blue Dogwood bar would carry eight Smitty’s flavors, including two that will be vegan.

“We’re excited about it,” Nakhle said. “We’re a mom-and-pop operation, similar to the other food vendors.

Smitty’s has three locations in Alamance County and is returning to Chapel Hill for the first time since 2014, when its deal as UNC’s official ice cream ended. Nakhle said setting up in the food hall is a taste of the future.

“It’s an experiment for us, but this model is kind of a paradigm shift,” Nakhle said. “There was the food truck phenomenon, but these cooperative spaces offer the same thing on a more permanent basis. I think it’s the future.”

Nakhle said Smitty’s makes more than 100 flavors of ice cream, with brown sugar oatmeal, Amaretto cherry chip and s’mores among the most popular.

Amy Nakhle of Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream scoops sweet potato souffle ice cream at the 2016 Smithfield Ham & Yam Festival. Abbie Bennett

A focus on startups

Compared to Morgan Street and Transfer Co. food halls in Raleigh, Blue Dogwood is small in scale, but by design.

“Our focus is the small businesses and startups,” Sarah Boak said. “Chapel Hill is such a special place and is so supportive of small vendors and farmers. I do think Chapel Hill gets it.”

UNC’s social district is in an era of transformation, as significant development on Franklin Street has brought in new restaurants and apartment buildings, altering the sleepy college town persona of the past.

Boak said Blue Dogwood seems to attract out-of-towners looking for diverse dining options, like vegan or Persian. In the market’s second year, Boak hopes Blue Dogwood is discovered by more students.

“It’s kind of a hidden gem,” Boak said. “People will find us and say they had no idea we were back here. We’ve also been lucky to have some very loyal customers who come in weekly.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.