Food Hall on Franklin: Blue Dogwood Public Market

A couple months ago, I started working as Project Manager at Blue Dogwood Public Market–a food hall at 306 W Franklin Street (across from Chipotle). I’m excited to share with Carolina Angles readers an interview with one of the owners of the market, Sarah Boak. Sarah works on everything from marketing to events, construction to finding new vendors, and everything in between.

Olivia: What is Blue Dogwood Public Market trying to achieve?

Sarah: Blue Dogwood is trying to create a community of small businesses who otherwise might find it very difficult to open a retail location. And in turn, share on finances and costs for everything from marketing to common area costs. We want to have a space to bounce ideas off each other and work together.

Olivia: Why do you believe in the market?

Sarah: Because this community and country really needs to step back, and do more to support local and small businesses, because that’s what creates jobs, build the community, and makes places great to live in. I love to have the opportunity to help small businesses who otherwise might not have a foot up on the finances.

Olivia: Why open Blue Dogwood in Chapel Hill?

Sarah: I grew up in Chapel Hill, and it’s always been very supportive of the small business community. However, over the last decade or so, it’s become harder and harder for small businesses to actually survive in Chapel Hill. There are more chains on Franklin Street than when I was growing up, and they’re getting farther and farther away from the downtown area. So we were trying to have a place where people could actually be near Franklin Street, and students and tourists could come, and people who walk around downtown would realize that this is a really cool, little market, and something that makes Chapel Hill really unique. 

Additionally, Chapel Hill has had a lot of small businesses leave Chapel Hill–go to Carrboro or Durham, just because rents are more affordable and they have a little more flexibility. So we’re trying to achieve something that’s pretty hard, which is helping small businesses do well here.

Olivia: What makes the business model so unique?

Sarah: Our business model is very unique. The food hall business model is basically a community of business come under the same roof. Blue Dogwood’s model takes it one or a million steps further because not only do we come under the same roof to take care of shared costs, we also really try to help each other out with our businesses. We try to partner for events, partner for catering opportunities, give each other a heads up if we have a new farmer that we’re working with, we recommend customers to other vendors–we really try to complement each other as far as our businesses go.

We also really try to keep rents very affordable. We have a very small Blue Dogwood management team because we really want the vendors to have ultimate flexibility with how they want to run their business, do their marketing, etc. So for example, if you’re really into events, cool–invite us or do it on your own. If you’re really into catering, then focus your efforts on that. Kind of the ultimate flexibility and the understanding that as a small, family-owned business it’s hard to do everything. You cannot compete with the incredibly large businesses, so you have to hone in on your strengths and go from there.

Olivia: What does the market look for in new vendors?

Sarah: In new vendors, we really want people who are very much entrepreneurial. They want to try out a product that is unique to the community and are doing something that makes them different from other local businesses. 

We also look for vendors who are very customer-friendly and customer-forward, and like talking with customers and building relationships. We have the greatest customers in the world, and we believe in creating relationships between customers and owners, who are working in their own stalls in the market most of the time. Customers are always surprised when I’m bartending, and I’m one of the owners. It’s a completely different experience to run your own retail space.

Olivia: Tell me about Soul Cocina.

Sarah: Silvana is originally from Colombia. She focuses on vegan, plant-based, hearty, Latin American inspired foods. She does hefty tamales, plantains–lots of foods that are plant-based and filling! She is also in a couple of farmers’ markets in the area, but Blue Dogwood is her first retail location. She has a wide variety of food, and she has a great following in the Triangle in the vegan community. My favorite thing from Soul Cocina is the pastel de yuca.

Olivia: Tell me about Rumi Persian Cafe.

Sarah: Matt had a restaurant in the past, and I think it was too big for him. He really likes the concept of doing the small food hall thing, and being a vendor in the market. He can talk directly to his customers, which he likes doing. He’ll tell you all about where he’s from, his travel, his life, and what he’s done. He also really likes talking about his food, letting people sample stuff, and making people happy! My favorite thing he does is his meatball sub–grass-fed lamb meatballs with a spicy sauce and kimchi.

Olivia: Tell me about Vegan Flava Cafe.

Sarah: Yeah–I also had a restaurant in Durham in the past, but it was too big of a space for them. They have a really great base of fans, and they focus very much on vegan soul food from various cuisines from Caribbean to southern food. Everything is all-natural, GMO-free, gluten-free. They try to get that flavor and texture that you would otherwise get from meat. Their background story is that they were traveling around and going to various conferences, and were bringing their own food. People would try it and were surprised that it was vegan and how great it was, and eventually suggested that they open a food truck. They’ve now transitioned to our retail space. My favorite thing from them is their vegan fish cakes with cheezy grits and these insanely good black beans.

Olivia: Tell me about The Bar.

Sarah: I’m one of the co-owners of the Bar. The Bar focuses very much on local beers and ciders. Only businesses that are self-distributed, i.e. the really really little businesses in the area. Everyone that we work with is within an hour and a half drive of Chapel Hill. Our farthest beer partner is Hopfly in Rocky Mount, NC, and our farthest cider partner is James Creek Ciderhouse in Cameron, NC. We do a lot of very good, solid beers, and we work with people that love their product and want to make it from the best ingredients. 

We also do organic wines from small vineyards mostly in Italy, France, and Germany. For those, we work with Piedmont Wine Imports out of Durham, and they have the same attitude towards shopping with small businesses that we do. When the owner goes over to figure out which vineyards to work with, he’ll generally stay over with them and drink wine and tell stories.

Olivia: Tell me about Big Belly Que.

Sarah: Big Belly Que is going to be opening soon! They’re a family-owned business from the area. In the past couple years, two big local barbecue institutions closed down: the Chapel Hill Barbeque Institution and Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro. Big Belly Que started looking closer at barbecue here in Chapel Hill. The head chef, Garret, worked more in high-end restaurants before. He decided to come down south from D.C. and has always been really interested in NC barbeque. He’s going to be smoking his barbeque outside, overnight for hours and hours and the reason he can do that is North Carolina’s recently passed Brunch Bill. They slipped in a clause that allows restaurants can grill in designated areas outside. I’m most excited for his smoked turkey.

Olivia: What’s on the horizon for Blue Dogwood?

Sarah: So many things! A number of community-based projects–we’re getting in a little free library, we’re starting to work more with local artists, we’re doing more events. We’re opening Smitty’s Ice Cream as a new vendor next to The Bar. We’re working with a number of UNC organizations on food, art, events, and more. We’re even starting a group catering program for all of the Chapel Hill community!

About the Author: Olivia Corriere is a senior undergraduate studying environmental sustainability, geography, and urban planning. She works as a Project Coordinator at Blue Dogwood Public Market in Chapel Hill, NC. She also serves as Co-Chair of the UNC Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, managing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy education projects on campus. In her free time, Olivia enjoys hiking and cooking with friends and family.

Featured Image: The patio outside Blue Dogwood Market. Photo Credit: