Durham restaurant Watts Grocery closes amid bankruptcy

The front door to Watts Grocery has not only their name, but a huge fork that is part of the door handle.
The front door to Watts Grocery has not only their name, but a huge fork that is part of the door handle. News & Observer file photo

Watts Grocery, one of the leading restaurants in Durham’s early farm-to-table movement, has closed amid bankruptcy issues.

Owner Amy Tornquist announced the closing Tuesday afternoon in a post on the Watts Grocery Facebook page, saying that Sunday’s brunch was the restaurant’s last service.

“It’s past time, it’s the right thing for everybody,” Tornquist said Tuesday in a phone interview. “It’s been sad, it was so sad on Sunday, but it was a little bit of a relief.”

The restaurant’s parent company, Sage & Swift Gourmet, filed for bankruptcy protection in February as Tornquist and her husband and business partner, Jeremy Kerman, attempted to settle the company’s debts. At that point, Sage & Swift had nearly a half million dollars in unpaid taxes.

While Watts Grocery will close, Tornquist said in her post that the company will keep the lease on the building at 1116 Broad Street in Durham. The post said that the building will close for a bit for light renovations and reopen as The Sage, an events space for the company’s Sage & Swift Gourmet catering operation.

“The Watts Grocery chapter of my life closed Sunday after brunch,” Tornquist wrote on Facebook. “It was time … Past time in fact. All restaurants have a time. While we are in a state of mourning, we are also looking to the future.”

In her closing message, Tornquist praised the rising quality of Durham restaurants, which in the past decade have put the city on the national dining map.

“Since Watts opened almost 12 years ago, Durham has turned into, as some would say, the tastiest town in the south,” Tornquist wrote.

As Tornquist pivots into a new culinary chapter for her company, bankruptcy proceedings have grown more complicated. In a motion filed late last month, the IRS is looking to move Sage & Swift out of Chapter 11 protection and into Chapter 7, which would assign a trustee to liquidate assets. In the motion, the IRS claims recent debt payments bounced for insufficient funds.

A decision on that motion will be heard July 17, according to court filings. Tornquist said Tuesday that they will fight to keep the case in Chapter 11.

“We’re confident we’ll manage to show we’re listening and making changes in our universe,” Tornquist said.

Tornquist started the company as a caterer, opening Sage & Swift in 1993. She opened Watts Grocery 14 years later on Broad Street, developing a reputation for one of the area’s most popular brunches, along with a nightly dinner menu full of takes on Southern classics.

The restaurant has a Durham following, but has struggled to compete as Durham’s restaurant scene has grown more crowded.

Tornquist let her fans know she has lots of plans for this next chapter. She said the turnaround from restaurant to events space should take about a month to complete.

“So we’re not gone. Just evolving,” she wrote on Facebook. “We’re looking forward to monthly wine dinners, cooking classes, hosting your many celebrations, providing holiday dinners to-go ... Hopeful. That’s where I am now. (And a little excited) At my age, this feels right. ... We’ve made the best of friends over the years. We want to say thank you for being so kind and loyal and sweet to us. You have meant the world.”

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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.